Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a landmark in the medium’s history, but watching it is more an exercise in satisfying curiosity than anything else. The sets and props, created by Hermann Warm in collaboration with the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, are the main point of interest. Heavily influenced by the paintings of Marc Chagall and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with touches that recall Munch and Picasso, their work is a striking attempt to bring the aesthetics of German Expressionism to film. And it would seem appropriate to the story, which is a deranged man (Friedrich Fehér)’s fantasy of the evil nature of the doctor (Werner Krauss) who has institutionalized him. The stylized, angular contortions of the sets seem an appropriate analogue to the twisted imaginings of a disturbed psyche. However, while one can see how the visual design is supposed to complement the narrative, one doesn’t feel it. The plotting is tired and thin, and the director, Robert Wiene, doesn’t have the flair for suspense demonstrated by contemporaries like D. W. Griffith. But the story has had its influence, most notably with its golem character (Conrad Veidt), who has proved the model for any number of movie monsters. The ones that immediately come to mind are the various cinematic treatments of the Mummy and the Frankenstein creature. Overall, though, the picture illustrates how a historically important work is not necessarily a worthwhile one. The screenplay is by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Lil Dagover plays the damsel in distress.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Film One)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of J. K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter novels, makes a solid transition to film. The picture is exceptionally well produced. An army of designers and craftspeople have applied their talents to the realization of the Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards, and they’ve done themselves proud: the art direction, costuming, and special effects are outstanding. The screenwriter, Steve Kloves, does his usual graceful job: the dialogue is crisp, the individual scenes are well shaped, and the overall story has been nicely streamlined. The casting is also spot-on. Daniel Radcliffe is a convincing Harry Potter, the eleven-year-old boy who discovers he is a wizard, although he’s a bit outshone by Rupert Grint, who plays Harry's best friend Ron, and both are upstaged by Emma Watson as their other best friend, the precocious know-it-all Hermione. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of Britain’s finest actors, including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, John Hurt, John Cleese, Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, and Fiona Shaw, with best-in-show honors going to Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid, the school’s groundskeeper. The director, Chris Columbus, has done a fair job of putting it all together. He’s not up to the storytelling challenges of some sequences—the Quidditch match in particular is a jumble—but he recognizes the drama in the scenes should come from the children’s performances. He also avoids the frantic tempo that has spoiled his work elsewhere; the scenes are allowed to find their own pace. Columbus’ work isn’t inspired, but it’s more than adequate; he gets the film series off to a good start.

Other Reviews of Harry Potter Material:

Novels by J. K. Rowling


Monday, February 27, 2012

Movie Review: Contagion

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script credited to Scott Z. Burns, is an ensemble disaster melodrama, but it goes out of its way to avoid the schlockiness typical of films in the genre. The story follows the progress of a worldwide pandemic. We see it strike its first victims, the efforts of scientists and government officials to contain it, and the societal upheavals that result. Soderbergh and Burns present it all with relentless logic and intelligence. And for roughly the first half, the picture is a triumph. It never goes out of its way to shock the audience; the filmmakers know the scenario is horrifying enough. They only intrude on the story to emphasize how vulnerable everyone is, and even that’s understated: the trope of portent is nothing more than hands touching things. The suspense intensifies in accord with the growth of the calamity. The film, though, loses its tautness in the second half. It remains absorbing, but the rigor and understatement of the storytelling start to work against its dramatic arc. The suspense plateaus, and the flattened tone deprives the resolution of the lift it should provide. The film ends up feeling more like a tutorial than a story. The uniformly strong cast includes Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, and, as the plague’s initial victim, Gwyneth Paltrow. Soderbergh, using his nom de camera Peter Andrews, provided the outstanding cinematography. Stephen Mirrione is responsible for the equally superb editing, and Cliff Martinez contributed the terrific electronica score.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Movie Review: Beginners

The great Christopher Plummer is an elegant, amiable presence in writer-director Mike MillsBeginners. He plays an elderly gay man who comes out after his wife’s death, and the character is determined to make the most of life in the time he has left. Plummer glides through his scenes, hitting just the right notes, and his beaming, impish smile stays with one long after the credits roll. The film could use a lot more of him. Plummer appears entirely in flashbacks; the actual story is about the character’s son (Ewan McGregor), his efforts to put his father’s death behind him, and his budding relationship with a pretty actress (Mélanie Laurent) who has father issues of her own. The romance is the story’s centerpiece, and it’s a glum one. As soon as the couple seems to lighten up and show some playfulness, the angst wells up again. The film is oppressively earnest, and shallow to boot. Mills tries to conceal the lack of depth with storytelling gimmicks: extensive flashbacks, jump cuts within scenes, and single-image montages narrated with trite philosophizing. He even includes gaudy absurdist touches, such as the subtitled fantasy conversations with a pet dog. But all he manages is to highlight the dullness of the main story. Whenever the film cuts back to Plummer, one breathes a sigh of relief. Overall, the picture is a dreary, forgettable effort.

Fiction Review: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book Two)

This review has been moved to the R. S. Martin website. Click here to read.