Saturday, July 21, 2007

Homeland Security: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007, Dir. David Yates)

I just feel so angry, all the time. And what if after everything I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me. What if I'm becoming bad?
-- Harry Potter

Harry Potter is an unavoidable fact of our lives, but I always enjoy talking with true Potter-heads, those who have absorbed every arcane bit of knowledge from J.K. Rowling's series, much like Harry pores over dusty old tomes at Hogwarts on a wonderfully dreary Sunday afternoon. As someone with my own obsessions (James Bond, anime, NFL 2k5), I always recognize the wavelength of a True Believer: gaga over the virtues of the thing they love, forgiving of its faults, content to enjoy and explain to others why they enjoy. I am assured by my Potter-loving friends that the Harry Potter movies are better understood and savored when one understands the motivations behind a fleeting supporting character, or the backstory that explains how Harry's prodigious father wasn't such a nice guy after all. Doting and amiable, Potter fans tell me that book five, The Order of the Phoenix, is a pivotal moment in the saga, in that Harry finally decides to do something and rebels against the dark fate that has been ordained for him -- to which I can only reply, Well good, I'm glad he's doing it ... and it only took FIVE BOOKS to reach this point ...

I must resign myself to the realization that I'm probably out of step with this Potter phenomenon anyway. My Potter friends seem united in their conviction that the fourth entry of the movie series, The Goblet of Fire, was easily the worst of the lot, while in my mind it was the best -- for all its sloppiness of construction, there was a kernel of real teen angst at the heart of it, and a restlessness which hinted at greater travails to come. Those travails come hot and heavy in the film version of The Order of the Phoenix, which just as well might have been titled Harry Gets Pissed, and for once there's no pussyfooting around when it comes to the story. Within the first fifteen minutes, Harry comes under attack by Dementors (and in case the name wasn't enough of a giveaway, we're informed that Dementors are very bad), takes a broomstick flight down the Thames, meets up with a rebel faction of sorcerers, and is threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Clocking in at under two and a half hours, the rest of the film is similarly jam-packed, the Harry Potter experience distilled and intensified -- more ghoulish apparitions, more hushed whisperings of conspiracy and murky motivations within sealed-off rooms, and a wizard-on-wizard smackdown that will send the kiddies home screeching with joy.

All flipness aside, The Order of the Phoenix has much to recommend it. As ever, the production design and special effects are impeccable, detailed enough to exude wonder and just fake enough to avoid being labored. The juxtaposition of the magic world and the real world generates some lyrical moments, as when Harry and his sorcerer pals take to the night skies of London on their broomsticks and peel past the houses of Parliament -- at moments like these, the Potter series stakes its claim to being the offspring of other English fantasies such as Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, where the commonplace and the fantastic collide. As with other entries in the Potter series, a good part of the fun is spotting the latest esteemed English actor slumming it in a walk-on guest role (hint -- two of Kenneth Branagh's squeezes show up). The standout this time is Imelda Staunton, who is alarmingly giddy as the matronly Dolores Umbridge, a guest lecturer under orders by the Ministry of Magic (bureaucratic and short-sighted, natch) to put free-thinking Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore in his place, and ensure that any signs of liberal thinking within the academy are swiftly quashed. Deliciously officious, Staunton reminds us why we have a soft spot for stories about school academies -- it's the never-ending struggle between childlike mischief and po-faced adult strictures.

Unfortunately, Umbridge's appearance just means more misery for poor Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who is still smarting from his near-fatal encounter with the dread wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) at the climax of his previous adventure. Naturally, no one at the Ministry or the Academy, save the ever-trusty Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), actually believe that Harry actually encountered his archenemy, and thus, he must be muzzled -- any resemblance to any current real-world government is purely coincidental...

If Goblet of Fire really belonged to Emma Watson, whose impatient outbursts barely concealed the yearning, anxious young woman underneath, then Order of the Phoenix belongs to Radcliffe's Harry. [An aside: it's sad to note that Watson's acting seems to have worsened between films.] Snapping at his bullying school tormenters, going head-to-head with the venal Umbridge, and eventually forming his own army of schoolmates as they ready for the coming war with Voldemort, this is a Harry who is prickly and proactive, or at least as much as he's allowed to be in a family film (his outbursts are noted, but their consequences are never lingered over). When the action is focused on him and the school year at Hogwarts, Order of the Phoenix whizzes along at an agreeable rhythm, with plenty of fun grace notes: the unusual spectacle of batty Gary Oldman playing a wise, paternal figure; macabre methods for dealing with recalcitrant students (how about getting your hand carved up?); a CGI giant that is simultaneously comical and ominous; and a school examination that gives way to a riotous explosion of fireworks and teen rebellion.

The Potter universe seems to function best when it comes to these episodic little flourishes; it falters when it comes to an actual throughline for the plot, which this time hinges on an important piece of information about Harry's future which is (gasp!) hidden in a secret location. All but ignored for most of the film, the quest for this information leads to yet another showdown between wizard and wizard, the loss of another friend, another glimpse of Harry's destiny, and then ... whoops, school year is over, so until next time ...

Depressingly, much of what actually happens in Order of the Phoenix reeks of deja vu -- once again Harry is disbelieved, once again there is a showdown with Voldemort in which Harry is bailed out by an adult, once again the story ends on an inconclusive note. Scripted like a Saturday morning cartoon serial writ large, the Potter series holds true to the idea of leaving the audience wanting more, while forgetting to throw that same audience a juicy narrative bone. Director David Yates knows how to keep things moving, and it's clear he has an affection for this universe, but the dollops of personality that Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell heaped on the The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire are in scant evidence here. There are a few gestures towards emotional resonance, including Harry's first kiss with Katie Leung's forgettable Cho Yang (a moment that is as chaste as an after-school special but still generated plenty of oohs and ahs from the young audience I saw the film with), and the implication that Harry is poised on the knife-edge between good and bad, but there's nothing about Radcliffe as an actor that suggests an inner Darth Vader raring to break out.

Perhaps this review comes off as sour grapes -- all Potter fans who line up to see The Order of the Phoenix will most likely go home satisfied, and isn't that what really counts? It all comes back to J.K. Rowling, and the books that started the craze in the first place. It's no wonder that Harry Potter has captured the hearts of millions; his world is just idiosyncratic yet comfortable enough to nestle into our imaginations. Yet that same fussiness that Rowling has applied to her characters and settings threatens to throttle the life out of her plots, which grow unwieldy with secrets, unexplained prophecies and none-too-thrilling twists and turns. Yates does what he can with The Order of the Phoenix, and he deserves some sort of medal for compressing Rowling's rogue narrative into something relatively streamlined. With any luck, he'll keep the pacing up with the next installment of the series, which he is slated to direct, and find a little bit more time for some authentic angst.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Shock Therapy: "Sicko"

Sicko (2007, Dir. Michael Moore)

"You're not slipping through the cracks. They made the crack and are sweeping you toward it."

-- Health insurance claims adjuster, Sicko

Yes, believe it or not, Michael Moore is a sensitive soul. You wouldn't know it from the likes of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, in which the Michigan filmmaker perfected the art of the in-your-face, look-at-me documentary, barely pausing for breath as he linked war, pestilence, and the erosion of everything good about the U.S.A. to the government, corporations, gun manufacturers, oil companies, and just about every other nightmare on the paranoid liberal hit list. Strident and snarky, his documentaries refuse to be ignored, but they also opened themselves up for easy dissection by the ultra-conservatives, who took glee in poking holes in his facts and his sanctimonious crusader persona. When Moore took the mike at the Oscars and bellowed against a "fictitious war" created by a "fictitious president," one could have seen the disaster coming from a mile away -- he was in danger of becoming a parody of himself.

And yet, for all his bluster and self-righteousness, Moore is perceptive enough to know when enough is enough -- how else to explain Sicko, his expose on the American health system, in which the rotund, baseball-capped filmmaker refuses to even show himself on screen for the first 40 minutes? When he finally does reveal himself, it is a kinder, gentler Moore that we see, quietly bemused by the follies of health care, sorrowful for an America that is yet to be ("Shouldn't we be better than this?"). Sure he isn't above a little showmanship -- like when he announces that he "anonymously" paid for the health costs of his harshest Internet critic -- but for those who have had enough of his Barnum act, Sicko shows a Michael Moore who is more willing to let the message take the spotlight -- and the result is his most devastating film yet.

And the message is clear: the United States is screwed when it comes to health care. Beginning coyly with a few horror stories (a man without health insurance gets two of his fingers chopped off in a sawing accident, and learns at the hospital that he only has enough money to reattach one), Moore quickly adds that "this film is not about them"; it is about the millions who do have health insurance, and still can't get aid when they need it. The litany of wrongdoing is exhaustive and exhausting, and Moore captures a chunky cross-section of it -- everything from a taped Richard Nixon conversation in which the president opens the Pandora's box of privatized health care to pharmaceutical companies who use their influence in Washington to gain hefty contracts, claims adjusters who are under orders to deny care whenever possible, and elderly patients literally getting dumped on the street in front of a homeless shelter because the hospital refused to take responsibility for them. In the end, it all boils down to money: the insurance company, like any good corporation, wants to make it, and patients will be forced to pay through the nose when they spend it.

It's sobering stuff, and Moore knows it -- he lets the interviewees tell their own stories, which are devastating without need of embellishment. A husband dies because a health insurance company doesn't approve of an experimental drug that might save him. A baby girl dies because the hospital isn't covered in the mother's insurance plan. A woman is charged for an ambulance ride to the emergency room because the ride wasn't "pre-approved" (never mind that she was unconscious at the time). Most affecting of all are the stories of volunteer workers who pitched in at the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11, and have been refused proper health care for their ailments because they were not "official" rescue workers.

Moore also knows when to get slightly whimsical -- in response to these tales of woe, Moore pays visits to Canada, England, and France, all of which have successful universal health care programs. This leads to some incredulous, amusing scenes in which Moore, playing up the "it can't possibly be better than it is in America" shtick, picks the minds of doctors, patients, and expats alike. And he is shocked, shocked to discover that a doctor in Britain can actually own a comfortable home and two cars despite being shackled by an oppressive socialist medical system, or that every citizen in France is entitled to a nanny when a child is born, free of charge, or that American expats in Paris feel a bit guilty about all the quality care they receive as a matter of course while their families back in the States toil all their lives for inadequate coverage.

During the course of his investigations, Moore lobs a few sobering statistics at us, but the point of Sicko isn't the numbers (no doubt they've already been sliced and diced by the critics), but the unease that we all feel about being helpless at the whims of the U.S. health system. Less a documentarian than a rabblerouser, Moore's movie succeeds admirably as incendiary entertainment, especially when he pulls the stunt of taking the New York rescue workers on an unauthorized trip to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, appealing to the military to let the beleaguered workers make use of the much-touted medical facilities ("We don't want any treatment better than what the evildoers are getting!"). And even this has a startling payoff, as Moore leads the rescue workers into Cuba proper, where they purchase medicine at a fraction of the cost they would be charged in America, and receive much-needed care at a Cuban hospital. It's a moment rich in irony -- the Cubans, the supposed enemies of democracy and freedom, still provide more humane care to Americans than the Americans would get at home -- and even though Moore harps on it a bit too bluntly, as far as rabblerousing goes, it's a doozy.

"Whatever happened to all that lovely hippie shit?" Pete Townshend once wrote in a song, and Sicko closes with a sequence that should warm the cockles of idealists everywhere -- the New York rescue workers, having been treated and feeling good for the first time in years, pay a visit to a local Cuban fire department, where they are greeted like heroes. (Sure it was probably all staged and preplanned, but you'd have to be a mighty Scrooge not to be affected by the moment.) As the men and women embrace, national boundaries broken down, compassion and goodwill toward fellow humans carrying the day, Moore dares to suggest that the America he believes in is an America that is capable of such benevolence and generosity, where one is willing to sacrifice for one's neighbor, with such a sentiment informing our health care, our government policies, our daily lives. For all his calculation and showmanship, it's somewhat endearing to realize that Moore honestly seems to believe in this stuff, and that for all its statistics and tales of woe, Sicko is really all about how people should be nice to each other.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

System Crash: "Live Free or Die Hard"

Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Dir. Len Wiseman)

"You're a Timex watch in a digital world."

-- Thomas Gabriel

"Yippie-kay-yay, mother--" [gunshot]

-- Det. John McClane

The two quotations above spell out Live Free or Die Hard's intent, its raison d'etre. On the one hand, it aims to be a canny update of the original Die Hard concept (with its glorification of the working-class, smartass hero) to a modern, more genteel era of mass terrorism and technogeeks. And on a more commerce-oriented level, it's a PG-13 film, all the better to draw in the wholesome kiddies who deserve carnage without the F-bombs (or as renegade film critic Vern would put it, "Live Free or Die -- Well, Let's Not Die Too Hard, There Are Children Present").

Nearly two decades ago, the original Die Hard was an apotheosis for the action genre -- acknowledging the gleeful, cartoon-like zest of Schwarzenegger and Stallone flicks, and applying the template to a protagonist a little more in line with what a normal American schmo would be like (the balding, wisecracking, almost doughy Bruce Willis), the film was a perfect capper to the Reagan years. As our beleaguered, anything-but-heroic hero John McClane contended with inept or venal institutions (the police, the government, the media) against heavily-accented Eurotrash baddies (led by the irreplaceable Alan Rickman), it was clear that what was at stake wasn't a safe full of cash in a high-tech Japanese corporate building, or even McClane's relationship with his estranged wife (who happily takes back his family name by movie's end), but the respectability of maverick American man-child heroes everywhere. It wasn't enough that Bruce saved the day and struck a blow for men in wife-beater undershirts and bare feet -- he also had to pick glass out of his feet while sobbing that he loved his wife. That curious mix of self-pity (for what is the flip side of being a macho, macho man but claiming to be misunderstood?) and self-deprecating mayhem, along with John McTiernan's take-no-prisoners direction, makes Die Hard a monument to '80s excess, and all the more classic because of it.

Nearly twenty years down the road, you won't find a mainstream Hollywood actioner that can afford to be so vicious, so blatant in its stereotyping, so vibrant in its fascism -- and thus we get a PG-13 Die Hard flick. Setting aside the ludicrous concept of a Die Hard movie that isn't quite so, um, hard, the latest edition of the John McClane story is a reasonable facsimile of the Die Hard template, at least initially. This time the villainy is on a national scale as baddie Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his lovely kung-fu assistant Mai (Maggie Q) paralyze computer networks across the country as part of a convoluted scheme that ultimately leads to -- you guessed it -- a gigantic robbery. In their way is McClane, who gets pulled into the affair when he's called in to apprehend computer hacker genius Matt Farrell (Justin Long of the hipper-than-thou Apple commercials), and soon finds himself in his standard poses: holding off nasty henchmen with automatic weapons, trading barbs with his archenemy over the phone, getting pounded into a bloody mess, and generally persevering through guts, sewer-rat tactics, and plain luck.

Director Len Wiseman, best known for the Matrix aesthetics of his Underworld films, approaches this film and its star almost reverently -- despite the gunmetal color palette, the hand-held cameras are steadier, the editing less flashy -- and the initial 45 minutes are deftly paced, as the crisis escalates to a fever pitch. The first act climaxes with one of those classic McClane self-rants as Willis takes himself to task for the madness he is about to unleash, and then does the only sensible thing: driving a police car right into the grille of an attacking helicopter.

Live Free or Die Hard is set to soar at this stage; sadly, it backtracks into noisier, less effective stunts, less wiseacre badinage, and lots of flipping back and forth between locations (in the span of two days, Willis and Long run back and forth across five states). Die Hard functions best when McClane is like a trapped animal, having to fight off evildoers within confined spaces, but here he is a superman who comes and goes as he pleases, flying helicopters (this from the man who hated air travel in the first film), dispatching opponents with Schwarzenegger-like efficiency, and maintaining a cool-cucumber countenance throughout. At times flashes of the old, obnoxious, this-ain't-easy McClane shine through in Willis' modulated performance, but there is little else to convince us that this is the same man who jumped off the roof of a building tied to a fire hose. It doesn't help that Mark Bomback's script doesn't allow him to cut loose, or have anyone to bounce off of; it's more interested in plot logistics and endless scenes of people typing feverishly at computer terminals.

You would expect McClane to butt heads with incompetent higher authorities and beat them at their overly-smug game, but we now live in an era in which authority is meant to be respected, and thus the FBI agents (led by Cliff Curtis in this film) are presented as undermanned but supercompetent -- I'm sure it's a nice tribute to the feds, but it sure ain't that fun, or interesting. You know it's a lost cause when most of the obnoxious humor comes in the form of an extended cameo by Kevin Smith, King of the Hip Blabbermouths, as a computer hacker who still lives in his mom's basement (how original).

As the film proceeds, its generic plotting and tropes become more evident: of course it must get personal for McClane, as his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) falls into Gabriel's clutches (wasn't there a Steven Seagal movie about this?), and of course McClane becomes mismatched buddies with the computer geek he's protecting (to his credit, Long manages to do something with his character despite the hoary conceit). You would hope that the bad guys would give Die Hard a shot in the arm, and Maggie Q does a good job slinking around in black combat fatigues and kicking our hero's ass for a bit ("Enough of this kung-fu shit," he says wearily at one point). Olyphant, however, is a total loss, peevish when he should be silky, dyspeptic when he should be glowering. The climax, which involves a fighter jet, some highway overpasses, and a 18-wheeler, is as artificial (boo, CGI!) and bloated as it can get, and a far cry from the DIY heroics of McClane's salad days.

By the time it ends, with the old war horse McClane nursing his fresh wounds and getting carted off to the hospital one more time, one must ask the question: Is a Timex watch needed in a digital world? The answer is a resounding yes -- but not in a film as formula-bound as this one, in which the thrills are as impersonal and mechanical as the computer-controlled ride at your local amusement park.