Year in Review: cinema and television

I watched just over five dozen films this year; here are my favorites (among the movies I saw for the first time):


  • Star Trek – I enjoyed this rollicking rethinking of the original space adventure.  I loved the way Abrams kept the old continuity and erased it at the same time–it’s a cute plot trick that lets them violate all sorts of old tropes about the Star Trek universe.  Awesome stuff.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceI’m a sucker for these movies, I’ll admit, but the last couple have been very good.  I’d put this movie at position #2 in my list of favorites, just following the incomparable Prisoner of Azkaban.  I particularly liked the over-used trailer line, “I’m afraid I must once again ask too much of you, Harry.”  Good ol’ Michael Gambon.
  • The Invention of LyingI’m a sucker for Ricky Gervais.  I love his Office, of course, but his mellower characters who brim with humility and shabbiness are even better.  The Invention of Lying captures this brilliantly, and it has a skewering vision of religion to boot.  Rob Lowe hasn’t played smarmy this brilliantly since Wayne’s World.
  • [REC] – I only recently watched this film, so it seems a little strange to put in on the Year in Review, but it’s so darn good!  The intensity of the through-the-camera view gives it some real zest.


  • The IT Crowd – This britcom delights me with its cheesy canned laughter, its over-the-top characters, and its crazy boss.  Like Black Books, it operates within the genre of the sitcom, not tweaking it but making it sing.  Like jazz.
  • The Lost Room – We watched this SciFi miniseries on DVD and were delighted with it.  The show tells the story of a mysterious room where something horrible happened.  The objects that were in the room each have mystical powers which amplify as they’re brought together.  Secret cabals compete to collect the objects, and villains wait around every corner.  Awesome stuff.
  • Psych – My favorite television show, I think.  It’s not complicated or mentally challenging, but more like popcorn.  It’s buttery and good and you want more as soon as you’ve finished.  It’s the one show that makes me smile pretty much every time I watch it, and whose commercials I stop fast forwarding to watch.  Check out the promo at the bottom of the page.
  • Dollhouse, Epitaph One – Bar none the best episode of television I watched this year.  So what if I saw it on DVD?  It’s a great post-apocalyptic story that pulls new ideas and emotions from characters who were settling into defined roles.  It demands that we think about the show in ways that were getting covered over by melodrama, and it makes everyday life in the series a bit more fragile.  Cracking good job, Joss!

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Now, where was that library?
Now, where was that library?

We enjoyed The Spiderwick Chronicles moderately. The film tells the story of a bummed-out teenage boy who stumbles upon a magical book that gives insight into the world of magical creatures. It is, of course, a very valuable book being sought by a malevolent Nick Nolte ogre monster demon. (He’s almost as scary as his mugshot photo.) Adventures ensue.

One could see the film as a couple things: a parable about the knowledge children are sometimes forced to learn–the divorce at the center of Jared’s trauma seems like a real-world piece of knowledge he’d be happier not knowing about; it can also be read as a discussion of the dangers of discovery and knowledge. Spiderwick’s book was carefully assembled over years of work and, while illuminating the secrets of the magical world, it also exposes that world (and ours) to incredible danger. One can’t help but see the parallels to scientific research. So the decision to defend the book is interesting in this regard (though the plot makes the book impossible to destroy).

A few additional thoughts:

  • I haven’t read the book, so I didn’t find myself noticing the distinctions between the film and its source material. I did find myself comparing the creatures in this story to their renderings in Harry Potter. Jenny also found connections to another book series, Fablehaven.
  • They do a great job of keeping the kids in real danger all along. From about the first 15 minutes on, the danger to the kids is both real and pretty darn scary. Solid.
  • The kid-is-angry-about-the-divorce was a little heavy handed, but it worked okay. Freddie Highmore does an excellent job playing the twin boys at the center of the story. Most remarkably, because of makeup, haircuts, etc that made them look slightly different, I didn’t even realize it was just one person playing both boys until the end of the film.
  • The magical creatures looked a bit plastic (as many computer-generated creatures do these days), but the seams were smooth and pretty much invisible. I couldn’t see the wires. At the same time, the menace of the frog-like goblins and the horrible troll are real and well-created. The moment when one of the brothers gets bitten on the leg (and a semi-circle of tooth-marks appears, bloody) made me wince, and the effect of the tomato-sauce bombs on the goblins really works well.
  • We couldn’t help but wonder how the next chapter might evolve, given the story’s pretty solid conclusion. Oh, I suppose another menace will arise from the magical world.
  • And as for good plot construction, there are a number of clever elements that work very well. Our favorite? The older sister who constantly practices fencing and suddenly has a real use for her swordsmanship. Nice.

Worth watching, but probably not worth going out of your way to see.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Having recently re-read HP 6 in preparation for the movie, I found myself struggling to remember exactly what happens at the end of the story. Seeing as the next movies are more than a year away, I decided to re-read HP 7. Some thoughts below–Spoilers ahead:

Those Deathly, Deathly Hallows
Those Deathly, Deathly Hallows
  • I enjoyed the book quite a bit on the second reading. Knowing the general outline of the plot gave me a bit more leisure to savor it. In particular, I wasn’t frustrated with the ages of camping Harry and his buddies do in the first half.
  • Jenny re-read the book too, and we’ve been talking about how they might make it into two movies. On one hand, I can see why this would make a good two-part movie, as it has lots of good short sequences that need telling in the overall story. On the other hand, I think it’s really all about the Benjamins.
  • This book has some excellent action sequences. I think the opening battle of the many Potters and the closing Battle of Hogwarts are both amazing. And the fall of Fred hit me right between the eyes, again.
  • I found some of the metaphyiscal stuff at the end a bit hokey this time around — having Dumbledore visit Harry in King’s Cross station and exposition the story along is a bit of a cheat, but since we haven’t seen ol’ Dumby for the whole book, we’re happy to see him.
  • Why oh why couldn’t we see Dolores Umbridge and Rita Skeeter get their comeuppances?
  • This time around I read the British version, which Jenny’s dad brought us from a trip to the U.K. I don’t remember the other book well enough to spot the differences.
  • I still don’t know what a Hallow is. I understand what the objects in the book were, but I don’t know why they were called Hallows. Correction: The Google definition function tells me they’re relics. Since the eponymous relics in this book belonged to Death, they are the Deathly Hallows. Sure, that works.
  • Moments I can’t wait to see in the movie: escape from the Malfoy Manor, Hagrid carrying Harry’s corpse toward Hogwarts, Snape’s big death scene, Molly Weasley versus Bellatrix.

As an aside, looking at the Harry Potter wiki, I see that the series took place in the early 1990s, and ended in 1998. Interesting. All this stems from two dates provided in the text, Nearly Headless Nick’s death (and subsequent 500th deathiversary) and the dates on Harry’s parents’ tombstones.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the movie)

So I’m going to write this review with the idea that you know all the essential plot points in the book.  I will be commenting on stuff in the movie, too, so if you want to be surprised when you see it, go ahead and come back to read later.  In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Lookin' for 'cruxes in all the wrong places...
Lookin' for 'cruxes in all the wrong places...

Short review: I enjoyed this movie a lot and think nearly everything about it was great.

Some things they did right:

  • The look of the movie stands out in a way that no film in the series, save HP3, has done.  There are several genuinely striking compositions.  My favorite was an up-the-stairwell shot in the Weasleys’ house.
  • Most of the changes they made to the book are for the better.  I don’t mean in a Platonic “better story” way, but rather than the shifts in storytelling style cinema affords were heeded and taken advantage of.
  • The film, like the book, blends lots of humor and high times with the dark and scary as well.  Couldn’t have been better.
  • The horcrux cave and the inferi are horrifyingly perfect.
  • The same goes for Weasley’s Weezes.  Hilarious.
  • Jim Broadbent rocks the film, as does Michael Gambon.  Jenny and I both noticed that one sequence involves Broadbent’s Prof. Slughorn and Madame Pomfrey (played by Gemma Jones) on screen together.  We’ll all remember that they played Bridget Jones’ parents too.
  • While we’re on the secondary characters, special nods go to Luna Lovegood, Lavender Brown, and the teenage Tom Riddle.
  • I particularly enjoyed the snappy dialogue in the film this time around.  Dumbledore has always had a good sense of humor, but he has some genuinely hilarious lines this time.
  • I approve of the extra/new action sequence at the Weasleys’ house.  The film needed a pick me up there.

And some little complaints:

  • The battle at the end is removed in favor of a stealthy getaway by the Death-Eaters.  I’m a bit disappointed, because I adore the battle at the end of Order of the Phoenix and was looking forward to some wand-waving carnage.
  • I’m not sure how I feel about the choice to illuminate Malfoy’s project more thoroughly than the book did.  On one hand, it gives D.M. a stronger role and makes his hardship at the end more sympathetic.  On the other, it reduces the surprise of the story significantly.
  • Also, having Ginny hide the potions book removed the essential clue involved in the novel’s version of that scene.   How will they get it back?
  • I thought that Dumbledore’s final line to Snape reads ambiguously in the book.  Dumby is on the ground, hurting, and we aren’t sure exactly what D asks Snape for.  In the film, we know D is weak, but he’s alert, and the tone of voice isn’t pleading at all.  It reads distinctly one way, I think.
  • I was sad to miss the new minister’s overtures to Harry, but I understand why they were cut.
  • A couple of the relationships came up short, IMO.  My companions and I agreed that the Lupin/Tonks hookup got too little build up in the film, and that the Harry/Ginny snogging was a bit too chaste — the  book gave it a lot more zest.

But overall, I’m very pleased.  It will have to sit for a few more days before I can confirm this, but I think the order of preference for the films is:

  1. Prisoner of Azkaban
  2. Half-Blood Prince
  3. Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix (tie)
  4. Sorcerer’s Stone
  5. Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the novel)

Book Six
Book Six

Part One of a special two-part series (duo?) reviewing the novel and the film.  You know you’re excited.

I re-read Half-Blood Prince this weekend as I prepare to see the movie tomorrow.  Some thoughts about the re-read of the book.  Oh, Spoilers galore, so stop here if you haven’t read or don’t want to know.

  • I appreciate the final scene in the book a lot more this time around than I did previously.  Having read Book 7 and thought about Dumbledore’s motives, his protection of Draco, even at the cost of his own life, demands admiration.
  • Jenny and I pondered a bit about how Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore fits the book better than did Richard Harris.  Gabon colors Albus with a Hippie’s paintbrush, wearing his Tam and stringy beard like a wizarding Phish phan.  By contrast, Harris had the aspect of the traditional wizard, with snowy white beard and pointy hat.  That said, Harris’ form worked very well for the first couple books, when Harry barely knew Dumbledore and his position as archetype wizard fit most perfectly.  As he’s gotten more human, his aspect has become less magisterial.
  • Snape continues to be the most complex character in the series.  This book walks the line most closely, as we don’t know whose side he’s really on.  As all those T-shirts around Oak Park on HP7 day said, “I trust Severus Snape completely.”
  • I enjoyed the side stories and romances quite a bit in this book, as they filled just enough space to be valuable, but not enough to overwhelm the tale.
  • I can’t wait to see what happens with the lake at the end of the book.  That scene ought to be amazing.
  • The young Tom’s inquiries into Horcruxes and other evil flotsam make this book particularly sinister, as does Harry’s creepy obsession with Malfoy’s work in the Room of Requirement.

I’m looking forward to the movie.  More on that tomorrow!

Mama Mia!

Mama Mia

Jenny reminded me that we’ve seen plenty of “boymovies this summer (though only movies that she happily agreed to see), and then reminded me that she is nine months pregnant, and then declared that we were going to go see Mama Mia! today.

  • Like the musical, it’s enjoyable because of the Swedish musical cotton candy of ABBA. Also like cotton candy, you will come away with a stomach ache.
  • The Entertainment Weekly review was spot on in several regards: the choreography is terrible, Pierce Brosnan’s singing is unfortunate, and the music is enjoyable.
  • Meryl Streep gets the most credit for her graceful age in the first half of the film. They let her look her age, red eyes and all. My only complaint is her blue jumper thingy (as above). I know it’s the outfit she wore in the musical, and it fits the narrative, but I think it looks unbelievably bad, and spent a big part of the movie irritated that she was wearing it.
  • Like the musical, my favorite bit was when Christine Baranski sings “Does Your Mother Know” to a saucy young bartender. (If you didn’t know the original song, it started as a man singing to a young strumpet.) I also really liked Julie Walters, who played Donna’s other best friend. She was spunky and entertaining, and had all the best slapstick gags. In looking her up, I realize that she looks shockingly different, but sure enough, it’s Molly Weasley (Ron’s mom) from the Harry Potter movies; this is rare for me, but I honestly had no inkling that I’d seen that actress before. Usually I’m bothered by such overlaps, and have to look them up to settle my hash.
    Julie Walters in Mama Mia! Julie Walters as Molly Weasley
    On that note, I absolutely cannot wait for her smack-down of XXXSPOILERBLOCKEDXXX in Harry Potter 7.
  • I felt bad for Pierce Brosnan, as the first song they gave him to sing didn’t suit his vocal range very well. He came off as being a bad singer when I think he just had a bad song. I was reminded of an interview I saw with the guy who sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother, Where Art Thou! for George Clooney.
  • There’s something about the American male identity–or mine at least–that cringes at exuberant female camaraderie. In particular, the sequences with the three older women rocking out in Donna’s bedroom (as above) would likely send most men scurrying for the popcorn counter. I wonder if I’m imagining that and if not, where the feeling of discomfort comes from. It might be generational — I wasn’t at all weirded out by the sequences with the daughter and friends acting goofy; my Mom’s peers, though, yeesh. I’d also be curious to see what the female equivalent of this discomfort is. OR, is feminist media scholarship correct to suggest that women are trained from early on to enjoy the “man’s” movie, but that men are not trained reciprocally.