reel reviews

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of AzkabanLife of Brian
Raising HelenSpring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and SpringSupersize Me

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

As the third Harry Potter novel makes its way to the big screen, the hardcore fans will no doubt thrill to see their favorite characters return, played by the actors who’ve come to embody them (except for Professor Dumbledore, now played by Michael Gambon due to the passing of the great Richard Harris). But more casual fans, who are simply looking for a good movie, would do better to take note of the film’s most important new addition. Alfonso Cuaron replaces Chris Columbus in the director’s chair, and his impact is significant.

While the first two Potter films were easily the best work of Columbus’s career, they were still as tame and uninspired as the rest of his lackluster oeuvre, which features forgettable hits like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Cuaron, a Mexican director best known for his sexy road flick Y tu mama tambien, imbues Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with a welcome sense of dark humor and an inspired visual flair that Columbus never could have mustered. It’s also great to see Gary Oldman, one of the perennial heavyweights of overacting, appear in a role where the majority of his screen time consists of a screaming mug shot, endlessly looped on magical wanted posters throughout the film. Oldman plays the recently escaped prisoner of the film’s title, who of course is intent on ending the spell-casting career of the heralded Mr. Potter.

In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry is still the campus superstar and Quidditch hero. He still draws the ire of the wily Professor Snape (played to the hilt by Alan Rickman). He has the same group of friends (a collection of child actors who’ve improved greatly over the last few years), an ever growing collection of enemies, and the expected new assortment of mystical creatures (like the skeletal soul-sucking Dementors) and oddball classes (Emma Thompson’s quirky, nearly-blind Professor Sybil Trelawney lectures on crystal ball gazing and how to divine the future from tea leaves).

The film’s complicated yet entertaining climax, involving time travel, a conniving rat, an angry werewolf and plenty of magical wand-waving, packs more punch than the previous two films, both of which overstayed their welcome by about 30 minutes. The Prisoner of Azkaban runs a little long as well, but it’s still a far more kinetic 142 minutes than its predecessors. Let’s hope that like the young, trouble-making wizard himself, Potter’s filmmakers will continue to take risks, however slight, with their billion-dollar franchise. (PG) Rating: 4; Posted 6/4/04

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Given the short attention span of contemporary moviegoers, those weaned on Hollywood action films and MTV music videos, it’s is hard to imagine a film like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring holding their interest.

A deliberately paced and (dare I say it?) Zen-like movie, this story of the life of a Buddhist monk floats quietly on the screen, just like the boat where the focal character lives.

This Korean language entry from filmmaker Ki-duk Kim (The Isle) is as universal a story as you’re likely to come upon. The elements of the plot are easy to relate to even though the people in the film live lives of austerity utterly alien to most of us.

The story is presented in five distinct segments. “Spring” shows a young boy who has been left to study with an elderly monk. Their monastery is a floating houseboat in the middle of a placid and remote lake, hidden deep in a Korean valley. In this isolated locale, the lad learns lessons in morality that, to his detriment, doesn’t always sink in.

The ensuing segments depict the subsequent phases of his life.

In “Summer,” he is a virile youth, who allows himself to fall prey to his own lusts. In “Fall,” he commits a heinous act that leaves a deep scar on his soul. In “Winter,” he seeks atonement for his sins through intense self-discipline. In “Spring,” the story comes full circle.

Ki-duk Kim (who also plays the adult monk in the film’s final two segments) relies heavily on the visuals to tell the story. There is so little dialogue, in fact, that the subtitles are rendered virtually irrelevant. The cinematography, by Dong-hyeon Baek, becomes the wordplay, and the resulting images are often quite stunning.

The themes in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring are presented in a gentle, matter-of-fact manner, but they can hardly be called subtle. If it weren’t for the meticulous filmmaking on display here, one might be tempted to dismiss the entire enterprise as overly simplistic.

But there are deeper veins of truth that run through the film. Those who are Buddhists or those well versed in Buddhist traditions will probably best appreciate the film, but even a child could grasp the core lessons that the filmmakers expound.

Depending on one’s point of view, the film is either deeply moving or painfully languid. In either case, it’s a beautifully crafted work. (R) Rating: 3.5; Posted 6/4/04

Life of Brian
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

After The Passion of the Christ hit theaters this spring, reaction was polarized. Some saw the movie as a religious experience that allowed them to truly understand the suffering that Jesus went through. Others saw it as sick, sadomasochist garbage designed, not to express the teachings of Christ, but to incite anger towards non-believers. As this controversy slowly disappears from the public eye, we see the re-release of another religious film that caused just as much controversy 25 years ago for “completely different” reasons.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian follows a young man whose life parallels Jesus. As an infant he is visited by the three wise men when they accidentally stop at the wrong manger. Thirty-three years later, poor Brian is a mess. He attends the Sermon of the Mount but just can’t make out the words due to the bickering of people around him. (“Blessed are the cheese makers?”)

When Brian joins a guerilla movement to fight against the Romans, events lead to him being mistaken for the Son of God. Of course, the Romans will have none of this, and Brian is crucified. Things don’t look so bad though, as Brian and other crucified victims sing the rousing ballad, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

The film viscously pokes fun at different approaches to religion. The Judean People’s Front is an underground organization that never can quite get out of the planning stages and fights endlessly with the People’s Front of Judea. The followers of Brian take their messiah’s discarded gourd and sandal, and hold them up as sacred relics. Sick people show up on Brian’s door demanding healing. When Brian shouts out to a mob of followers that they must all be individuals, they shout back in unison, “Yes, we all must be individuals.” (When one person says softly, “I’m not,” he is shushed into silence.)

Life of Brian was unfairly criticized for being an anti-Jesus film. However, the Pythons never attack Jesus or his teachings. Their targets are those religious zealots who take Jesus’ simple messages of peace and love and use them as crutches or as cries for war and persecution. The Passion of the Christ may have been successful in capturing the pain and suffering that Jesus experienced when he died for the sins of humanity. Who knows? But Life of Brian successfully captures the pain and suffering humanity goes through every day at the hands of these lunatics and blind followers of religion.

And unlike Mel Gibson, the Pythons are pretty damn funny.

Life of Brian is playing exclusively at the Rio Theater. (R) Rating: 5; Posted 6/4/04

Raising Helen
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Kate Hudson has become the Meg Ryan of the new millennium. She is bubbly, cute and attractive to both men and women in a benign, genial kind of way. After her celebrated breakout performance in Almost Famous, lightweight parts have become her forte. Moviegoers familiar with Hudson's character from the 2003 romantic comedy, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days will recognize her as essentially the same person in Raising Helen: a career-minded but fun-loving single woman, working successfully in a glamorous industry and enjoying easy, party-girl access to the hottest nightclubs. Another ready parallel is the flagrancy with which colossal contrivances keep the story in motion.

Helen Harris works at a successful modeling agency, as the assistant to the stereotypically cruel and exacting chieftain, Dominique (Helen Mirren), who incongruously casts a benevolent eye over Helen. When Helen¹s closest sister Lindsay dies suddenly, custody of Lindsay's children is bequeathed to Helen, despite Jenny, the family's older sister, qualifying as a supremely capable suburban mom. Helen's glitterati existence is just a contrived set up for this plot point. A dead mother, affluent lifestyles and copious amounts of sentimentality, interspersed with expedient life lessons, make for an opiate for the masses. This should be no surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers or is familiar with director Gary Marshall's soporific but supremely marketable work (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Pretty Woman).

Joan Cusack plays the stable but matronly sister Jenny. In her first scene she reacts to Helen's flamboyant entrance with vexation, using her trademark ability to simultaneously beam and appear on the verge of tears. When Helen's life is upended by the sudden responsibility of the children, Jenny comes to Helen¹s rescue many times, teaching her about motherhood and responsibility. In the meantime, Pastor Dan (John Corbett), the children's new Lutheran school principal, woos a reluctant Helen. Fans who have followed Corbett since his days on Northern Exposure may find this new incarnation creepy. Pastor Dan is a kindly but a patronizing do-gooder who offers Helen with unsolicited parenting advice. How the two end up together relies on contrivances that are sadly characteristic of the genre.

Despite its crassness, and again echoing How to Lose a Guy, Raising Helen is hoisted to higher ground by some jolly one-liners and the unrelenting affability of Hudson. While many filmgoers will recognize and object to the engineered sentimentality, they may nevertheless find themselves hypnotically raising a hanky to catch unbidden tears. Such is the palliative nature of so many Gary Marshall enterprises. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 5/31/04

Super Size Me
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

As an irreverent attack on the fast food industry, Super Size Me is a plainly partisan but persuasive and entertaining documentary directed by Morgan Spurlock, a human guinea pig willing to sacrifice his health for his art.

Personifying the dramatic declining health of Americans, Spurlock undertakes a month-long experiment, consuming nothing but food from McDonald's restaurants. Inspired by lawsuits that were filed against McDonald's on behalf of overweight children, the film expands to offer a sampling of different health and lifestyle issues, from school lunch and P.E. deficiencies, to brand imprinting, food addiction and the extremes of weight reduction. How audiences stomach the remonstrations may correlate highly with their love of a Big Mac.

By turns comedic and dramatic, both the strength and flaw of Super Size Me lie in embodying the statistical evidence. Beginning with a recitation of health stats, the voiceover is undercut with images of obesity and the ubiquity of fast food chains. There are four McDonald¹s per square mile in Manhattan, some to be found inside hospitals.

"At least you're close when the coronary kicks in," Spurlock assures us.

Prior to his McBinge, Spurlock undergoes a series of medical tests with a variety of specialist doctors to determine baseline health measures. He appears to be in good, above average shape. In keeping with the satirical tone, Spurlock's girlfriend is a vegan, and she prepares his "Last Supper," an organic, vegetarian meal.

For the next month, he abides by three rules: he can only eat what is available over the counter at McDonald's; no supersizing unless offered; and he has to eat every item on the menu at least once. He also tries to maintain the activity level of the average office worker by taking cabs and limiting his usual New Yorker walking.

While Americans are familiar with the general idea that fast food is unhealthy, Spurlock examines the issue of personal versus corporate responsibility. Samuel Hirsch, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the McDonald's lawsuit, argued that the public might generally understand fast food is not health food, but does not realize just how bad it can be. Spurlock attempts to find nutritional information inside McDonald's restaurants with poor results, begging the question of just how one can exercise personal responsibility without the necessary data at hand.

By Day 13 of the experiment, Spurlock has consumed an average 5,000 calories per day, twice as much as the recommended daily intake. Not surprisingly he has also gained a dramatic 16 lbs. His cholesterol and blood pressure have skyrocketed, and his liver is ailing; he is having headaches, body pains, mood swings and his sex life is suffering. By Day 21 his doctors are fervently urging him to give up the experiment.

Since the success of Super Size Me at Sundance, McDonald's has increasingly touted its healthier side. Although denying the film's claims, the company promoted new initiatives just three weeks after the announcement of the Sundance lineup. Not mentioned in the film is that James Cantalupo, the CEO and chairman of McDonald's, died on April 19 from an apparent heart attack during a convention of franchisees. He was 60.

After his experiment, Spurlock swore off McDonald's for a year. After Super Size Me filmgoers may never relish a Mac Attack in quite the same way again. (Not Rated) Rating: 4; Posted 5/31/04

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