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Volume 3, Number 46

This Week's Reviews:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, L.I.E., Innocence.

This Week's Omissions:  Come Undone, The Man Who Wasn't There, Waking Life, The Wash.

Capsule Reviews:  Domestic Disturbance, On the Line.



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

(Dir: Chris Columbus, Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Ian Hart, Warwick Davis, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Harry Melling, John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, David Bradley, ZoŽ Wanamaker, and Julie Waters)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Making a film adaptation of the current “modern classic” in literature has created some fine fruit in the history of cinema. Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and Silence of the Lambs have all come out with great fanfare and shown audiences a fine alternate medium for their beloved novels. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the latest big adaptation, fails with glorious flames of overhype and misdirection.

The words that have fallen out of my mouth whenever someone asks me of my opinion of this highly awaited film has been “mediocre at best.” Those words are the most concise, direct, and correct verbal representation of my feelings on the film. The definite sense I had after the film was disappointment but it was muted by a feeling that the film had succeeded in some parts.

J.K. Rowling has infused her stories with a fine hint of mysticism that works for them. I’m sure the imaginative creations are ten-times more enjoyable in the novel since that medium is almost completely dependent on the imagination. Her work does not disappear in the film version, it’s just overshadowed by a director’s inability to give the product his own artistic touch without failing to compliment Rowling’s.

Young Mr. Potter (Radcliffe) is still an earnest English moppet set to react to the illustrious world of magic suddenly dropped upon him. When he was an infant, his parents were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort and a failed attempt to kill him left him with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. With his parents dead and Harry in danger, the heads of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry leave him at the door of his non-magical aunt (Shaw) and uncle (Griffiths).

Inside this home he is treated like a second-class citizen, getting a room under the stairs where they often lock him. When he gets out, it’s usually so Harry can fix breakfast or receive some taunts from his cousin (Bradley). Then eleven years later, Hogwarts begins to send letters to Harry, but his uncle quickly incinerates them. When the fireplace can no longer hold all the letters coming into the home, they move away. But Hogwarts takes the final step to get the kid: they send in 8-foot-tall gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Coltrane). The aunt and uncle cannot really stand in Hagrid’s way when he begins packing Harry out of the house.

Harry is brought into the fantastic world of a higher education dedicated to magic at Hogwarts -- it’s the Cambridge of the mystical arts. There, he makes two friends: the abnoxious and bossy Hermione Granger (Watson) and the scruffy and insecure Ron Weasley (Grint). Of course, for the sake of storytelling, there are some enemies too: the conniving student Draco Malfoy (Felton) and the suspiciously sinister Prof. Severus Snape (Rickman). And there’s still the matter of Lord Voldemort.

So many artists work on the film that its tough to touch on all of them in one review, but here’s an attempt at the hits and misses. The production design by Stuart Craig gives the film a nice mixture of Gothic architecture and overwrought expressionism. The score by John Williams rams the same melody of rehashed scores (Jurassic Park, Home Alone) -- some of Williams’ worst work in his long career. The costumes by Judianna Makovsky turn some of the more intriguing characters into well-dressed intriguing characters, especially the dressings of the school’s teachers, though the clothes thrown on Richard Harris looks like something rejected by Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. The visual effects lead by Simon Burchell and Allen Cappuccilli looks like some of the horrid CGI-creations from The Mummy and the blue- and green-screen shots need a great deal of extra work. The cinematography by John Seale retains some of the great mystical touches Rowling tried to create in her novel. The screenplay by Steve Kloves has some absolutely terrible dialogue, though most of it comes straight from the source. And the direction by Chris Columbus looks like the incompetent redundancy that Columbus has often relied on -- the director shows about as much restraint as a ribbon in front of an elephant stampede.

Like everything else in the film, the acting too is hit and miss. Felton works pleasantly by playing nothing more than a slighty more emotional kid from Children of the Damned. He is the best of the kids, though, with the other three painfully going through their lines. I won’t give any of them leverage since they are new to business (only Radcliffe has appeared in movies before): they are absolutely terrible. Since the book series will last for some years and Warner Bros. will definitely want to keep making the movie adaptations, I can only hope that by the third or fourth film, the actors will be deemed too old for the roles. Of course, I fear that this hope is in vain.

My biggest problem with the film, though, is that it seems too interested in mollifying Potter fans. The film lasts a long 153 minutes -- though it does run briskly thanks to Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing -- because they try poorly to cram in unimportant parts from the book. There are scenes (some lasting as long as 20 minutes, like a horrid game of Quidditch comparable to Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace’s pod racer sequence) with little need for inclusion: they are there only because readers of the novel will want to see them brought to life. However, when they are so inconceivably shown, these scenes simply seem obligatory.

Harry Potter is known by millions of fans in hundreds of countries -- its success with those who have read the novels is predestined. The movie has been tailor made for these people and has no real interest in the other people. Perhaps, they hope the uninitiated will like the film. Of course, that’s only so that these new fans will read the other books and go to all the sequels.


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L.I.E.

(Dir: Michael Cuesta, Starring Paul Franklin Dano, Brian Cox, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, James Costa, Tony Michael Donnelly, Walter Masterson, and Marcia DeBonis)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Big John Harrigan (Cox) is the type of person who always tries for younger lovers -- he is in his late 50’s but has probably never been with anyone his own age in decades. He’s gruff and proud -- his military sensibilities (he’s an ex-Marine) and demanding speech patterns makes him a sexual giant in his own mind. Big John would happily tell anyone what it means if he added “son” at the end of his nickname ‘Big John.’

But there is a difference to Big John than in any of the Lotharios normally shown in films: the sexual targets for him are young males. He is a pedophile -- and Michael Cuesta’s film L.I.E. yearns to create a paradox out of him. Big John, like Dylan Baker in Happiness, is a humane pedophile: his actions are absolutely horrible, but the audience is meant to understand that he is just as complex and compassionate as anyone else.

Big John’s interests have turned to 15-year-old Howie Blitzer (Dano), a Dix Hills resident who lives the tough but intellectual lifestyle thrown on many young protagonists in film and literature. His mother died recently in a car wreck on the Long Island Expressway (where the film gets its symbolic title) and his father (Altman) within weeks has brought in a younger, beautiful woman to replace his wife. Howie has a strong mind, but all this has put a damper on his grades and on his preferred circle of friends.

Howie has become a close friend of Gary Terrio (Kay), a smalltime hood and male prostitute who convinces Howie that he is needed to help him and other friends break into houses in Suffolk County. One house is that of Big John, who almost automatically figures out that the culprit was Gary -- he has done business with the boy in the past. When Big John confronts Gary about some guns that are missing from the house, the young man passes the blame onto Howie. Little does Gary consider (or does he?) that he is not only implicating his friend of a crime but also putting him into the mind of a pedophile.

L.I.E. is tough to watch at times, but not near as taxing as it could have been. Michael Cuesta often shows too much restraint with the subject matter, throwing everything into a horrible ending that should have been in a different movie. There’s no reason to want the film to break any barriers of pederasty sexual intercourse, but the storytelling tools feel like they are often held back. Everyone involved seems ready to go far with the material except for the writers.

The film, however, does have some highly interesting touches that make it a worthwhile art house distrcation. It lays the symbolism on a little too heavily, but some of the more literal parts make for a fine cinematic experience. Given the subject, this could have been a more homoerotic retooling of Lolita, but Cuerta does have enough sensibility to keep the film from veering in this direction. While the intents of Big John are absolutely reprehensible, the film keeps his actions a little ambiguous. This is not as good as Todd Solondz’ work on Happiness’ pederast, but it is a worthy creation to stand slightly below it.

The direction gets heavy-handed at times, but for the most part remains true to the audience’s willingness to continue with the story. Cuesta, a photographer in trade, knows how to use film to its best even if he cannot really latch onto the best form. Supplemented by great cinematography by Romeo Tirone and an even better score by Pierre Foldes, L.I.E. turns out to be a highly visually and aurally pleasing motion picture.

The story’s low points are saved by the performance of Brian Cox. He has been in countless movies of note over the last few years, though his only name performance still stands as his Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. Cox won an Emmy a few weeks ago for the TV-movie Nuremburg playing Hermann Goering, but has never really received any big recognition for his feature film work. That’s a great shame: hopefully some big group like the Independent Spirit Awards or the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards will give him a much deserved awards for his performance here. Though, something tells me, I might as well only worry about IFP West taking the time to notice him -- the Hollywood Foreign Press and AMPAS would not touch this film with a ten-foot pole.


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Innocence

(Dir: Paul Cox, Starring Julia Blake, Charles Tingwell, Terry Norris, Robert Menzies, Marta Dusseldorp, Kristien Van Pellicom, Kenny Aernouts, Chris Haywood, Norman Kaye, Joey Kennedy, and Liz Windsor)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

The relationship in Innocence strikes a certain chord to me that might not be found for most audience members. Watching the film, I was somewhat reminded of the rekindling of a relationship that occurred with my grandmother after the death of my grandfather. A few years later, she found companionship with someone she had known decades earlier when she first married my grandfather. By this time, they were both in their seventies, a widow and a widower, and they married each other.

Similarly, the two leads in Innocence once had a long relationship before moving apart to marry someone else. Andreas (Tingwell) and Claire (Blake) had a nice love affair in Belgium after World War II. Their own struggles for independence and communication finally brought an end to their little relationship 44 years ago. Now, as both are in the their seventies, they begin to imagine what the present day would be like if they were together.

Andreas is the first to try to bring them together. He finds that Claire now lives rather close to him in Australia and sends a letter to her requesting a lunch between two friends. He is now a widower and she is part of a rather cold marriage -- neither is really in a strong bond with another individual. They depart each other again and move back to their melancholy lives. But Andreas is not ready to leave it at that and implores Claire to return. She comes to his side when he must go to the cemetery and watch his wife’s remains being moved because of land development. Claire sees the emotional side of Andreas that had caused her to lose sight of the man she once loves. Now, she too is willing to begin their affair again.

Considering that the film is willing to explore the sexual relationship of two seniors, it’s no surprise that Innocence had to be imported to play in theatres. The American resolve that all sex is initiated by the young and attractive means anything about the old and wrinkled will do little business in this country. Hollywood executives would cower in fear of any film with partners over 35, unless it was a come-together “chick flick.” Paul Cox’s film is not like any of the works that America might have made -- its story and feel are definitely from abroad, though the work has a defined touch of France even though the actual setting and production come from Australia.

The emotional detail that Paul Cox is willing to explore comes extremely close to some of the late films of French New Wavers. Eric Rohmer or Jacques Rivette could have made a film like Innocence and no one would have flinched. Instead the production comes from the less-known but nearly as talented Cox, whose melodramas often complete the relationship between movies and human emotions.

His work on this film could be his best, even though the story is not. He directs the movie passionately with a keen interest in the way the two protagonist and their semi-antagonist, Claire’s bewildered husband John (Norris), participate with each other. The camera gently follows them in their conversations as if it were a subtle bystander -- perhaps even the capturing of the view John strives hard to get of the couple.

The actors are all remarkable, with the magnetism of Julia Blake holding the most remarkable performance of the three. All three actors are rather well known in Australia, though their near complete anonymity to the States helps the work. Had the actors been, say, Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, and Robert De Niro, this film would have seemed more like an actors exercise used as an excuse to get some big names together. With the three as they are now, the film has a definite feel of realism -- since we are not completely familiar with these three, they’re relationships feel more like something the movie is inadvertently capturing. The only piece of audience preliminary knowledge of the actors that might have helped in the realism is the fact that Norris and Blake are married off-screen as well.

The only problems in the film appear in the screenplay, which takes too many turns to the melodrama that does not fit the rest of the story. The normal soap opera antics of a romantic drama is toned down a great deal by Cox, but considering the age of the two lovers, something maudlin has to happen sooner or later. This reminded me of a way Gene Siskel chose to further acknowledge his high regard for Fargo: he noted that it was the first film he could remember with a pregnant lead character who never goes into labor. A similar choice by Cox in restraining the continuation of life’s patterns would have helped the film. Everyone knows what is bound to happen -- it happened to my grandmother -- and a little self-discipline could have made Innocence into more than just a fine idea with a listless ending.


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Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for Domestic Disturbance and On the Line (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre).  Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."


Domestic Disturbance

(Dir: Harold Becker, Starring Matthew O’Leary, Vince Vaughn, John Travolta, Teri Polo, Steve Buscemi, Chris Ellis, Nick Loren, James Lashly, Rebecca Tilney, and Debra Mooney)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Run-of-the-mill thriller sets another stepchild in danger and another stepparent in dark, sinister lighting. Steve Buscemi throws in a fine performance of distastefulness, but John Travolta, Teri Polo, and horrible young actor Matthew O’Leary stumble through the painfully bad dialogue and scenarios.


On the Line

(Dir: Eric Bross, Starring Lance Bass, Emmanuelle Chiriqui, Joey Fatone, Dan Montgomery, Jr., Amanda Foreman, Gregory Qaiyum, James Bulliard, Tamala Jones, Dave Foley, Richie Sambora, Jerry Stiller, and David Fraser)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Dumb romantic comedy with so little regard for any narrative coherence that it ultimately becomes a test of how long an audience can sit through mindless crap, On the Line feels like a tedious TV ‘romcom’ without the commercials to lighten up the proceedings. Had ‘N Sync singers Lance Bass and Joey Fatone not agreed to this making this film as a way to sell a few more records and jump start some form of a acting career, On the Line would probably already be in the pile of rarely rented videos for sale at a local Blockbuster.


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Reviews by:
David Perry
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