Friday, April 29, 2011

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

When I first read the Goblet of Fire, it was one of my favorite of the series. This time around, I didn't really want to read it. Its length really hurts it. I was going through the beginning of the book thinking, "they're not even in school yet!" It made me feel like it was going to take forever to finish it. The main problem is, and I'm not the first to say so, that once you've read it before, you realize that everything in it is an over elaborate set up just to get to the end. J. K. Rowling seems to think that you can't just have something show up at an important moment - you must first explain the thing so that it will "make sense" when you use it later. I guess she doesn't want something to seem like a macguffin, but I really don't see anything wrong with someone taking the time to explain stuff either while it's happening or after the fact. Pretty much the entirety of the Quidditch World Cup is set up for later elements of the story, and when you couple it with the fact that I really don't care about quidditch at all, it made this a difficult slog through.

On the other hand, there's one thing that surprised me a little on this repeat reading - the death was still just as emotional. Or, more specifically, Harry's reaction to it. While obviously I was not shocked this time around, reading about how Harry was dealing with the loss was just as painful to read as the first time around. It was much of the same when reading about what happened to Neville's parents. She's certainly an expert at tapping in to human emotion.

This was also the first time I noticed an inconsistency. At the end of the book, she says they are waiting for the horseless carriages to arrive. Shouldn't Harry have seen thestrals already at this point? I just looked it up online, and a wiki claims "Harry could not see them that June because he had not yet dealt with what he had witnessed." Sounds like an excuse to me.

Another minor thing that bugs me - why is the only female competitor the worst at pretty much every task?

As you would expect, the movie made a lot of cuts. There's no flashback sequence of Voldemort killing his father, no Winky, no Ludo Bagman, no veelas (or mention that Fleur is part veela), no Weasley twins losing money to Bagman or receiving money from Harry, no Percy, Charlie, or Bill, no Pigwidgeon, no blast ended skrewts or nifflers, no spider or sphynx in the maze, no S.P.E.W., and no Dobby.

Obviously, bringing back Dobby and creating Winky would have increased the cost of the movie, so I can understand leaving them out. Not to mention all the other house elves had Hermione tried to talk to them in the kitchens. I really hate the whole S.P.E.W. sublot, because I just don't understand what Rowling was trying to go for with this. Is Hermione supposed to look like a fool? Because she certainly does in my eyes. The only thing I can figure is that SPEW is supposed to be sort of like PETA - people who champion the rights of other species but bring it to an unhealthy amount of unreasonableness. Because I can't see that Rowling is trying to say "If people want to be enslaved, let them!" but I could see her saying that "Animals in service who are treated well do not need to be freed." I'm sure someone out there has analyzed this to death already - all I can say is for me, I'm happy to see it not mentioned in the movies.

Overall I think most of the cuts really just serve to keep the movie moving at a fast pace. I stayed interested throughout its considerable running time. There's also a few quick additions/changes to the story, and I love all of them. McGonagall teaching them to dance, finding out that Neville is a great dancer, and Snape punishing Harry and Ron for talking too much during a test are all fantastic. There's more Neville and Weasely twins in general, it feels like, and as much as I love those characters you will hear no complaints from me. I also got the distinct impression that the screen writer was in love with Hermione as a character. She's always the one giving Harry advice or worrying after him, while Ron mostly just sits there with a funny pout on his face, if he's even in the scene at all. As of this moment, I like the movie a lot more than the book.

At this rate I don't think I'll be finished my re-read before Deathly Hallows Part 2 is released in theaters. Oh well. With any luck I'll be in time for the home release.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Mist

I've read so much of Stephen King's work that I can't even count them all. I'm a bit behind on his work of the last decade, but the only ones of his classics I haven't read are Christine and Cujo. I don't really know why, honestly. I guess the idea of an evil car or dog just didn't appeal to me enough in my younger days. My favorite of his work has always been his short stories. King's always fantastic at coming up with crazy concepts, and when he's writing a short story, he seems to really push those to the limit. The best part is that most of these do not end happily. Too many stories and movies like to wrap up with a happy ending, and given the horrors that people are often exposed to in his stories, it really doesn't make any sense for them to end that way. One of the things I loved about Needful Things was that finding out that Thad from The Dark Half didn't exactly live peacefully after he banished his alter ego.

It's really hard for me to say whether Skeleton Crew or Night Shift is the better of his two early short story collections. They both have some really great stories. Skeleton Crew also includes a couple poems, one of which, "Paranoid: A Chant," is just excellent. My absolute favorite is "Nona" a story of a guy's experience with a young girl he runs into while hitchhiking. I love it because she's such a vivid yet mysterious character and because we're never given an explanation of just what is going on. Those kind of stories really take hold of me and don't let go.

"The Mist" which starts off the Skeleton Crew and is really a novella rather than a short story, is similar. While there are hints given in the story as to just where the mist and its monstrous inhabitants may have come from, we never really know for sure. I haven't actually read this story in a long time, but I know I've read it at least twice and I always really enjoyed it. Given the history of Stephen King adaptions, I was pretty skeptical when they first mentioned they were making a movie of it. It seemed like it should work - a lot of the problem of adapting the novels is that they cut for time, but this being a novella they should be able to do it more justice. Most of the reviews I saw were pretty positive, but for whatever reason I didn't get around to seeing this until now.

I had pretty much forgot all the major details of the story when I watched the film. Checking Wikipedia after viewing it, I was surprised to see just how much of it was accurate. In my memory there were a lot less people stuck in the grocery store, but I guess since I was viewing it in my imagination maybe my brain wasn't filling the background with extras. I also had no memory of Mrs. Carmady at all, which is pretty bad considering how important she is to the story. I guess on the positive side of things that means I was able to enjoy the movie more fully without sitting around waiting for stuff to happen.

This story (and movie) has a lot in common with Night of the Living Dead in that it is a story about the survivors and how they deal with the unknown force outside more so than the monsters themselves. There's a couple really tense horror/action scenes where the people go up against the creatures, but for the most part we're dealing with three groups of people. There are the overly practical down to earth folks who refuse to admit there are monsters outside, there is Mrs. Carmody who is convinced this is a sign of the end times and slowly gathers others to her side, and then there is our main character David Drayton and the small group that gathers around him - they acknowledge the monsters are real, but are looking for much more practical ways to escape the situation. Tensions from the threat of the monsters builds the tension inside between the groups. It's a great dynamic, one Stephen King often excels at, and one I think Frank Darabont did a good job translating on to the screen. Of course this is the same guy who adapted The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to film, so obviously he knows something about the proper tone of a Stephen King adaptation.

Nearly all of the emotional moments of the film hit me where they were supposed to. While the monsters were great fun to watch, it was the human interactions which had me truly horrified. It's probably worth mentioning that there are a fair number of gross out gore scenes too, so people who are sensitive to that may not want to watch. The beauty of it is that those people can read the story and still enjoy the experience. For those of us who don't mind, most of it is pretty well done. I'm fairly certain it is mostly if not all CGI, but there was really only one moment where it looked fake. I suppose the dimly lit fog filled environments helped that a lot.

There are two big differences between the story and the film, and both are related to answering questions. The movie definitively states where the monsters came from and the end has much less ambiguity. I suppose they probably decided that the average viewer would want these questions answered. Of course, there is also something added for shock value, not unlike The Wicker Man. The problem I had with the shock moment is that it completely broke my suspension of disbelief. While I was horrified the moment it happened, I spent most of the time afterward thinking about how easily it could have been avoided, rather than reeling from the revelation and feeling what the character was feeling. I can think of at least a couple ways it could have been fixed. Obviously I am doing my best to avoid spoilers, but if anyone who has seen the movie would like to discuss, let's do so in the comments.

The character of David Drayton is an artist and in the very beginning of the movie we see him in his studio. He's working on a painting of Roland Deschain from The Dark Tower series. When I was looking through the bonus features, I saw one entitled "Drew Struzan: Appreciation of an Artist." I wanted to check it out because I thought the painting was really well done. I didn't realize my mind was about to be blown. Drew Struzan has painted probably just about every single movie poster you have ever loved. Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Back to the Future. Blade Runner. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I had no idea that all of those were done by the same person. Absolutely amazing talent, and it's sad to know that he is now officially retired. I definitely had to mention it because more people need to know his name and appreciate him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Monsters vs. Aliens Challenge: The Blob (1958 & 1988)

This is part 2 of my Monsters vs Aliens Challenge. If you missed part 1, click the tag in this entry!

I think a lot of times we make the mistake in believing that people used to take creature feature films seriously . There is a scene in The Blob where we see a lot of teens sitting in a movie theater watching a "spooky" movie. None of them look scared, and if I remember correctly, there's even a moment when they all laugh at the screen. While the characters in The Blob all take this creature seriously and are concerned that it's a very real threat, I think that is meant to add to the humor. Things do take a dangerous turn at the end, but for the most part there's a lot of silliness to be found here.

The special effects are pretty fantastic. The blob seems to be made of harder stuff when it needs to grab on to something and it's much more loose and oozy when it needs to seep through cracks. There's also a lot of work with miniatures that look quite real. I'm kind of amazed how back at the turn of the 21st century, there was a lot of excitement about how movies could be made to look so much more real now that we had CGI technology. While our CGI continues to improve and become more and more lifelike, I still find myself preferring the techniques that these older films bring us.

I think the biggest place this film goes wrong is in its message of "adults don't take teenagers seriously." It's really gratuitous and takes up far too long on the film's 82 minute running time. Much like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman before it, the monster's rampage is much smaller in scope than one would hope for in movies like this. Whereas in that previous film I related to Nancy, I just can't relate to these teenagers in the same way. I found myself thinking "get on with it!" more often than not while watching. It does, at least, have a nice payoff. While the parents and policemen find themselves skeptical of what the teenagers have been telling them, the moment the blob reveals itself and puts five people in danger, the town rallies together. I like that there's no time spent apologizing or saying I told you so - they simply figure out what they have to do to put a stop to the creature.

It's hard to make comparisons to this blob and B.O.B. from Monsters vs. Aliens. While the movie is obviously the inspiration for the character, the blob doesn't talk; it only moves from place to place and feasts on humans. B.O.B. is obviously not so blood thirsty, and honestly I'm not sure if he even could absorb a human. He's shown to go through them multiple times, but he always spits them back out. Food and garbage, on the other hand, tend to dissolve within him pretty quickly. He also has a different origin. While the blob comes from within a meteorite, B.O.B. was lab created from genetically and chemically altered food. It's also possible that the reason B.O.B. is not blood thirsty is because he doesn't have a brain. It also makes him the most lovable member of the group and the most obvious source of comedy in the movie. He's voiced by Seth Rogen, who is possibly one of the most lovable comedic actors ever born, so that's not entirely a surprise.

Since so many of the movies in this challenge also have pretty well known remakes, I thought it would be worthwhile to cover those as well. I was semi-dreading watching The Blobremake, and it's possible that my expectations are to blame, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this. I think I might actually rate it higher than the original. This is how remakes are supposed to be. There are tributes to the original film with many of the iconic scenes played out again, often in a slightly different way. There's also a fun Friday the 13th parody that we see playing in a movie theater. While the blob doesn't morph in texture quite as often as the original blob did, the higher budget of this film means we get to see it do a lot more cool things than we could before, and it's shown far more often. The story is not a direct rehashing - in fact there's one inversion that happens near the beginning that I really enjoyed. I think the updated story makes a lot of sense. In the 50s, they frequently used aliens as a metaphor for their fear of nuclear war. In the 80s remake, we get a much more obvious reference to the cold war that was currently going on. While it makes it all look a bit dated now, I think it's at least executed well.

This is not to say it is a perfect film. The characters are all cookie cutter, the jokes are weak, and the dialogue is about as predictable as you can get in these kinds of films. There aren't any major actors here that really stand out, though I thought it was funny that I recognized the two female leads from Stephen King adaptations. A fair number of the males also had me going "Hey, it's that guy!" too. The absolute worst part of the film is it's attempt to set up a sequel at the very end. At least I'm pretty sure that's what they were trying to do. It got my eyes rolling into the back of my head.

The absolute best accomplishment of the remake is one simple thing - the blob is actually scary! Its acidic nature is much more prevalent, and we see some rather gross moments as it dissolves its victims. It also moves a lot faster and frequently uses tendril-like appendages to reach out and grab people. This movie would have really freaked me out as a kid, regardless of the inevitable comparisons my mind would have made to the mood slime featured in Ghostbusters II.

I recommend both versions. Have you seen both? Which do you prefer?

Don't forget to head over to Shredded Cheddar and watch E's live blog of The Blob!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Wicker Man (1973)

I watched The Wicker Manfor the first time last night. I know quite a few people who rate the film very highly. I didn't dislike it, but it also didn't blow me away either. Three years ago I bought a t-shirt from Threadless titled Spoilt(It's a given that there are spoilers at that link, right?). For a true movie fan, especially one who loves twist endings, it's a great shirt. Even for those who aren't absolute movie buffs, it's a great conversation piece. Pretty much any time I wear it, I get comments and people will ask me about whatever spoiler they are not familiar with. I am very careful about wearing it. I have occasionally chosen to wear it knowing I'm going to be hanging around people I don't particularly care for, and therefore don't care if I ruin movies for them. It's also okay to wear around people I know who watch tons of movies who I figure have already seen most if not all of the films. I've noticed that one of the spoilers on the shirt is one people frequently do not know, and in fact I myself did not know it until I bought it. At the time, I'm not sure I even knew that The Wicker Man of 2006 was a remake, and considering how panned that film was, I didn't think I was going to end up watching it anyway.


I did not see The Sixth Sense until it came out on video. I had successfully managed to avoid all spoilers up to that point, and the movie blew my mind as it had so many others before me. My boyfriend at the time was not so lucky and he did not really enjoy the film at all. After last night's viewing of The Wicker Man, I can see why. Knowing what was coming, I mostly spent the film trying to find a message behind it all. Horror movies are frequently designed to teach us a lesson as well as prey on our fears, so I think that was a logical assumption to make. For a film that features a devout Christian suddenly finding himself surrounded by pagans, I figured it could go a number of ways. Was it to trash the filthy pagans and their evil deeds? Was it trashing the Christian instead? Was it a little less specific, simply to admonish a man so tied to his particular faith that he unfairly judges others who practice a different one? In all honestly, I don't think any of these are the case. While people could certainly argue based on their own personal feelings (and what is more personal than our religious beliefs or lack there of?) I felt like it was as respectful as it could be to both sides in the context of the story. This is a true Christian, tempted like any normal human would be, but ultimately true to his faith. The pagans are not truly shown as evil, their religion is just more a stark contrast to his Christian ideals. From what I can tell, the horror of the situation relies almost entirely on the shocking twist of an ending.

These kinds of twists can certainly provide a powerful emotional response. In the case of movies like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and The Usual Suspects, they frequently have us clamoring to watch the whole film over again to see how this new piece of information changes how we view it. While I still enjoy all three of those movies, there's a part of me that wishes I could go back to that initial moment, to see the movie completely fresh again, and be blown away once again. Since that is impossible, I generally enjoy watching all the little clues that are laid out ahead of time and to find any possible contradictions.

*Spoilers ahead*

Then there is something like "The Lottery." If you somehow never read this short story by Shirley Jackson, take a few minutes of your time and go do so. It's one of those stories you never forget once you have read it. The Wicker Man is extremely similar in that it relies on the same level of shock value to horrify you. I think if someone told you, "here's a story about a village that randomly chooses to stone one of their members once a month" you probably wouldn't think much of "The Lottery." In a similar vein, being told ahead of time that "the villagers sacrifice the policeman" takes away a lot of the shock and horror that watching The Wicker Man blind would provide for you. The mystery of what's going on with the missing girl feels largely irrelevant, and when the end arrives, it doesn't hold as much weight. It's a fantastic performance by Ed Woodward and I did feel for him, but knowing it was coming all along really took away so much from it. I really wish there was some way I could have erased my memory for long enough to fully enjoy this film. This film doesn't really have much in the way of replay value like the other films above because there really aren't any clues ahead of time. It largely relies on misdirection - making you focus on the missing girl - so that you will be completely blind sided when the end is revealed.

If you are in the boat I was in and you already know what happens but have never seen the movie, I'm not going to flat out tell you not to watch it. Ed Woodward and Christopher Lee both give excellent performances and there are tons of naked ladies for those who like that. The movie is an interesting blend of classic horror and an art film and it has a lot more intelligence then films in either genre often have. You just have to accept the fact that the movie's emotional value may be lost on you.

If you were spoiled on the film before watching it but loved it immensely anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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