Monday, February 25, 2013

#524. 2013 Oscars

So, the 2013 Oscars just happened.  I started thinking that Best Picture was going to go to Life of Pi, continuing the Indian fetish established by Slumdog Millionaire, but instead of course Ang Lee was once again Brokeback Mountained and lost that award to Argo.

Now, you may or may not recall that last fall I saw four movies in a group, and among them was Argo, and my personal favorite of those was End of Watch.  It wasn't so much that I didn't like Argo, because I did, and love to support Ben Affleck's career, but I thought the movie didn't quite have what it took to be what it wanted to be.  It reminded me a great deal of Munich, which is a personal favorite of mine, and so if you compare to Munich it's both a good and a bad thing, because you really can only be better or worse, and it was, well, not better.  Still, it's probably a better overall film than Affleck's other directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the latter of which I really enjoyed the first time I saw it but maybe doesn't hold up as well as it could.  Probably Argo does, although I'd still support Beasts of the Southern Wild over it (as I did when I made my predictions last month), or even Pi (loved the book and will probably love the movie, when I finally see it), and probably definitely Django Unchained when I see that (because I'm a big fan of Quentin Tarantino).

Anyway, now that Daniel Day-Lewis has won his third Oscar, can he go away already?  Maybe all the clips I've seen of Lincoln somehow doesn't do the performance justice, yet as someone who recently read a book about the Civil War (None Died in Vain), I've got quite a different interpretation of how convincing this transformation really was, other than visually.  Yes, he looks pretty much dead-on.  But the acting is not what people say it is, much as however memorable Daniel Plainview is, it's still pretty much exactly Bill the Butcher.  (Though if you don't know either name, you might as well watch both There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.)  It's the same kind of misplaced sentiment that put Meryl Streep in a similar position for me last year.  Her fans, like Day-Lewis's fans, have a wildly exaggerated sense of her worth.  She's great when she doesn't think she's great, and uninspired when she does.  So goes this year's Best Actor.

Glad to see Christoph Waltz get another win, and I called Jennifer Lawrence's win, although hers comes at a far different point in her career than similar Best Actress honorees like Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Sandra Bullock.  Still looking forward to seeing Silver Linings Playbook, though.  You may recall that it was on that very long list of fall 2012 movies I blogged last year.

For the record, I'll say this much of how Best Picture actually went down.  Obviously the backlash of Affleck not getting a directing nod had a huge role in changing the course, because more times than not Best Picture and Best Director go hand-in-hand.  Beasts probably had a greater shot than most commentaries have suggested recently, although the fact that it was released so much earlier than the other films in contention had a big impact on its chances, because that's actually a consideration for voters.  They just forgot about how much critics adored it for most of last year.  I highly recommend you watch it yourself.  If Lost's Michael had stumbled into Katrina with Walt instead of a mysterious island, this is exactly what it would have looked like.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

#523. Seven Ways the Star Wars Prequels Are...Better

With all the chatter about the next Star Wars trilogy, it's more important than ever to remember that the prequels don't suck.  I know, I know, it's as much a part of the culture now that they do, the same as the originals being untouchable (unless it's Return of the Jedi), that you're probably laughing your head off, and waiting for my punchline.  Except it isn't coming.  I've adored the prequels since they were originally released, in 1999, 2002 and 2005.  Sure, George Lucas started making a play at the kid's table long ago, but we're so far away from the dreadful Holiday Special (which, by the way, had no involvement from Lucas), I think we need to put things in perspective.  The prequels rock, and in some ways they're superior to the originals, and it's high time we stop kidding ourselves.

Anyway, here are my arguments:

  1. Narrative Coherence - Everyone knows that the whole point of the prequels was that they were meant to explain how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.  The thread of the originals was never that clear.  In fact, the big surprise of The Empire Strikes Back is that the audience learns a giant secret along with Luke, that Anakin and Vader are in fact one and the same.  That's unarguably the moment Star Wars transitioned from a fun little space adventure to an epic story, when people started taking it seriously.  So it's always puzzled me that it's the shock and not the story that fans are ultimately interested in.  They still rely on their memories rather than the movies themselves.  The prequels are all about the story.  I'm a story guy.  I love when a writer displays a command of their story, no matter how that command is demonstrated, and it was a bold choice from the start to say that Anakin was only a boy when it all started, not quite naive but definitely very childish, and even at that point was subject to the corrupting influence of bad breaks and unrequited desires, and actually getting some of what he wanted but not all of it.  The audience believes as much as anyone in The Phantom Menace that Episode I ends on a happy note, the only thing ominous being whether it was the Sith master or apprentice who was eliminated.  And yet the audience knows the answer to that, just as much as they know that Anakin's story is not happy, not by a long shot, no matter how it seems.  That's George Lucas playing exactly opposite the Empire moment.  In Attack of the Clones, we catch up with a frustrated Anakin who does some very bad things, well before being corrupted by Palpatine to the Dark Side of the Force.  It's the first sign that it wasn't the Sith that defined Vader but rather Anakin himself, exactly what Yoda was saying in Menace.  Yet in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin has all but conquered his fears.  He's a happy Jedi performing admirably, channeling his aggression in positive directions, when again he gives in to fear, this time knowing exactly what's going on and accidentally walking into his peril.  He's gotten everything he wanted, except one, to finally be accepted for who and what he is, to love Padme openly, and to join the ranks of the Jedi masters.  There's none of that in the originals.  Ben Kenobi makes it seem like Luke will instantly become a Jedi, and yet Yoda basically says that the very idea of it is a joke, only to later admit that he was being overly hard on him, that the only regret in the equation was Luke's knowledge of and confrontation with his father.  Really?
  2. Character Continuity - See that I'm not just focusing on execution?  But that'll come later, too.  As outlined in my previous defense, characterization was huge in the prequels.  In the originals, it's mostly Han Solo.  Without Han, the originals would be sunk.  And he's not even a Jedi!  He's not even technically a Rebel!  He only sticks around because he bonds with Luke and wants to be in a relationship with Leia.  He's the opposite of the entire Star Wars message, or rather the entire message of the original films, thereby supplanting the arc that emerges starting with Empire, the focus on the Skywalker legacy, something that's supposed to be integral to A New Hope, but instead is all about convincing Han to stick around and take things seriously, like the whole notion of the mystical Force.  Hokey religions indeed.  In the prequels, everyone knows their role, even when the audience doesn't.  Jar Jar Binks may be the greatest example.  The prequels always knew this character far better than the audience.  The audience rebelled against Binks the way everyone did against the Empire in the originals.  Once one person said a bad thing about him, everyone else did, too, and that's the story of the prequels in general.  Word of mouth became perception of reality.  Yet Jar Jar makes perfect sense, both in Menace and more importantly within Clones.  He's the version of Chewie that would have existed if Chewie hadn't just been Han's buddy.  He's the character who's the alien, but in this instance his context isn't just in relation to someone else, but within his own culture (if there's any real mistake in Menace it's that there isn't a fine enough contrast between Jar Jar and the rest of the Gungans, but even then the overall point of the population of Naboo is made perfectly well) and against the rest of the characters as well.  Obi-Wan lumps him in with the other "pathetic life-form" of his and Qui-Gon's adventures.  The other being Anakin Skywalker.  In Clones Jar Jar, whose role is greatly reduced and yet effective for the role he was always intended to fulfill, represents the weakness of the Republic.  That's all you need to know.
  3. Supporting Characters - There's literally no one like Palpatine in the originals, and that's just the tip of why he's the secret heart of the prequels, the strongest and most unifying element, and he's only a supporting character!  There's also Jango Fett, used far more effectively than his son Boba in Empire, even if the mystique of the latter will always eclipse (at least for the foreseeable future) the former's reputation; Count Dooku, who's a huge reason why Clones deserves a better reputation; Darth Maul, another Boba Fett surrogate who surpasses the original; even Zam Wessel, yet another surrogate Fett who's more interesting than the original, simply for having far more to do than look cool, with far less screen time.  Don't get me wrong.  Yoda is the best supporting character in any Star Wars, or at least the most iconic, and I will always be a big fan of Lando Calrissian, but Lando was a variant of Han, and Yoda didn't survive the prequels with his reputation entirely intact (even though he's yet another standout element of Clones with his so-called Jedi-fu).  Mace Windu, A.K.A. Samuel L. Jackson in his trainer franchise role, is someone who could never have existed in the originals, where no one existed unless they were a main character or reported directly to a main character.  Storytelling evolved in more ways than one for the prequels.  Depth of characters increased dramatically.  Subtlety was not always the point, but it was also one of the best things about them.
  4. Presentation - Yes, the originals reshaped the entire landscape of filmmaking.  But the prequels have been at the vanguard of the modern movement, and you will know this by the continued complaints of digital landscapes that somehow don't comprehend that this is absolutely the future of movies.  Simply put, the prequels are gorgeous.  That's the whole reason why George Lucas continued to revamp the originals. There will always be a difference between the two trilogies, because one is essentially a Western (the originals) while the other is a fantasy (the prequels).  The originals are all about the starkness of existence in the face of a terrible struggle and the endurance of the spirit, and so there will always be a remoteness necessary to them, even if half of that was simply how movies were made at that time, just as new capabilities in special effects informed (and helped inspire Lucas to make) the prequels, where everything that the characters in the originals were trying to restore actually existed, including the Jedi in their prime.  Speaking of which:
  5. Choreography - Simply put, the Force rocks in the prequels.  Lightsaber duels may yet define the legacy of the prequels, as they are undoubtedly the highlights of both Menace and Clones, as well as the whole reason for Sith, where we finally see the fatal encounter on the lava world between Obi-Wan Kenodi and Anakin Skywalker, in some ways the real reason the prequels were made in the first place.  Darth Maul is the essential performance of this new art, and yet of course there's also Yoda, and the two waiting to steal the show in Sith aren't so bad, either.  Yes, the fight between Luke and Vader in Empire is a set piece that defines the originals, even before the big reveal that ends it, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as what Maul does in Menace, even when he's just pacing (something I still do in tribute, by the way).
  6. Knowledge of the Star Wars Universe - It's true.  Most of the story of the originals is skirting around any concrete information.  The very fact that there are three different directors probably still has an impact on how that information was disseminated, the whole Skywalker family (and why fans still have a joke that Luke and Leia kissed), not just going back to the narrative coherence that started this list, but all the little details.  Alderaan is blown up in Hope.  So what?  It mostly matters because that's Leia's home world.  We see Hoth, Dagoba, Tatooine, and they're all on the fringes, and isn't that a little disappointing in hindsight?  Wouldn't you expect now for the Rebels to have taken the fight a little more directly to the Empire?  Are we just going to assume that Tarkin's pet Death Star meant that much, even though it's admittedly not even taken seriously by Vader, who is himself considered a relic?  That Lucas accepted a lot of the expanded universe (i.e. material created by someone other than himself) into the material presented in the prequels is one of the more prescient details, especially in the years leading up to the first films that will be made entirely by others.  The prequels understand how thing actually work so much better.  They're not improvised.  They're not, in essence, a Rebel production.  The Jedi and the Sith and the Force all get their own mythology.  There was backlash to some of that, especially concerning Midi-chlorians, but who cares?  It's the details that make things tick.  That's why fans were so excited about learning who Vader really was in the first place.  The prequels are loaded with that kind of material, which is perhaps why they were so easy to take for granted.  But that doesn't make details a weakness, but rather a definite strength.
  7. Integrated Storytelling - Empire is a romance.  Again, mostly because Han Solo hijacked the originals, especially in Empire, where romance is all about Han and Leia, and then secondarily Luke and the Force, and even Chewie and Threepio (!).  Hope is the most obvious Hero's Journey moment of the originals, while Jedi is all about wrapping everything up.  Yet the prequels have a dozen things going on in each of the films, moreso than the originals.  Sith alone, much like but on a grander scale Jedi before it, juggles several distinct acts.  Clones has the romance much like Empire, but Anakin is so much a combination of Luke and Han, it's no wonder fans never got around to figuring out who the Han surrogate was, because he was a bigger rogue than ever before, and it was suddenly all about trying to figure out what you really think about that archetype, rather than simply being charmed by it.  Han was pretty one-dimensional, all things considered.  Anakin was like the prequels, all over the place, yet very focused.  It was following him from moment to moment, and even Obi-Wan as he struggled to keep up every step of the way.  There's a reason why Anakin thought there was a love triangle in Sith, which was very different from the one Han perceived in Jedi.  And there's a reason why there was a podrace that stole the middle of Menace, and why there's nothing like that in the originals, unless you maybe count the Endor speeder bikes in Jedi or the asteroid chase in Empire.  That's another reason why having one director rather than three allows a single vision to encompass far more than three separate visions all trying to represent themselves can be a strength, rather than the traditional view that Lucas "just didn't have it anymore."  He did indeed have it.  He knew exactly what he wanted, and was able to accomplish so much more because of it.  By the time Han ends up in carbon freeze, Leia is simply there to finally admit what he was trying to get out of her from the start of the movie.  By the time Anakin wraps his arm around Padme, it's about both of them.
All of this is not to say that I don't like the originals.  I love the originals.  Always have.  Yet I don't see the contradiction in also loving the prequels, as so many fans seem to think must exist in considering both.  It's Star Wars.  I'm a Star Wars fan.  That's all.

Monday, February 11, 2013

#522. My Romulan Exile

"As happens frequently here on Romulus, a new government came to power.  They decided to abandon the plan.  They were afraid that I might be discovered and that it would lead to war."
The above is a quote from Star Trek Nemesis, the 2002 film that ended the adventures of Jean-Luc Picard and The Next Generation.  The speaker is Picard's clone, Shinzon.  I've long been a far bigger fan of the film than most Star Trek fans, who invariably dismiss it for any number of reasons, one of them being that it reminds them too much of the classic second film in the series, The Wrath of Khan.  One of the reasons for my devotion would be my appreciation for the psychology behind Shinzon's arc, the mere tip of it expressed in that quote.  It's a rare moment where Star Trek is very much about the human element, at least as much as the later Star Trek, soon to see its sequel Into Darkness released in theaters.

Yet it's only now occurred to me the true significance of what Shinzon was saying.  He's no big fan of Romulans himself, being a human clone cast into the darkness of Reman exile (it's funny to me that Tom Hardy portrayed Shinzon, a role that is so similar to his Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which completed the actor's redemption following his breakout appearance in Christopher Nolan's Inception), yet Nemesis is also perhaps the clearest indication of what Romulans really are.  In Star Trek lore they're an offshoot of Vulcans, who rejected the strict tenets of logic and chose a more pragmatic lifestyle.  Yet as I now see them, Romulans are also huge idiots.

Yeah, I just said that.  The essential thing to take away from the quote is that Shinzon says political upheavals are a regular occurrence.  This is reflected by everything we've ever seen of them.  They're horribly ineffective.  Sure, they developed cloaking technology, but that's the extent of Romulan achievement.  They went to war with Starfleet in early Federation history, but were too proud for anyone to even know who they were.  In the episode "Balance of Terror," it's Kirk who makes the first official contact with them, and only because the Romulan commander is rethinking, or rather rebelling from, the ideologies of the Star Empire, which during this period is mostly active by supporting the Klingons.  (That's right.  Much of what you know about Klingons was borrowed from Romulans.)

Romulan pragmatism keeps further conflict with the Federation at bay, but it also eventually made enemies of the Klingons.  Worf lost his family because of this.  Starfleet couldn't use cloaking technology because of this.  And Sisko was able to trick the Romulans into the Dominion War because of this.  Romulans essentially have no backbone.  They have the most ambitious plans of anyone in the galaxy, but are never able to capitalize on them, because they hedge all their bets.

They're idiots.  They ultimately prefer the status quo.  That's the real trick.  Unlike Vulcans, who hem and haw about wanting everything to make sense but ultimately are willing to do some pretty radical things like making friends with the extremely illogical humans, Romulans keep themselves in a corner and atrophy.  Shinzon was supposed to replace Picard.  It would have been a brilliant plan.  And yet he was tossed aside.  He performed brilliantly in the Dominion War, by the way.  Picard himself seemed to do everything but fight in that conflict.  The whole idea of Nemesis was to present the contrasts between the driving forces and diverging outcomes of the man we knew so well for two decades.  We knew Picard had a wild youth, and that he ultimately valued this period because it helped make him the man he became, who seems so much more respectable...but is it possible that the brashness of Shinzon is more admirable?  Picard plays it safe, like Romulans.  He knows what to do in a crisis, but that's experience, and the support of those around him, not decisiveness.  If Shinzon falters at all, it's that he continually loses his nerve around Picard.  He wonders if there's something else he should be doing.  He, too, becomes a Romulan.

I'm not saying that Shinzon is the hero of Nemesis anymore than Picard being the villain.  What I'm arguing is that conviction can be a good thing.  Yet like Romulans, so many of us lack conviction that it spoils many plans.

The title of this post is "My Romulan Exile," so what I'm really saying is that this is very much a problem I've been experiencing personally.  For one reason or another, I'm suffered from a lack of conviction for much of my life.  I've suffered for the last decade at least because of it.  I graduated from the University of Maine with a Bachelor's Degree in English...and that's as much as that's ever done me.  In the ten years since, I've experienced my own series of regime changes, switching jobs from one miserable experience to another, corporations with no idea what they're doing affecting the lives of everyone around them with complete indifference.  The best lack all conviction.  The best of us don't know how to navigate these waters.  We're like Shinzon, we're like Picard.  There's no telling what we should be doing.  There's too much space in space, and too many ideas about what we should be doing, and too many people doing whatever it is they think they should be doing, rather than trying to work for a common cause.

As I said, Picard's main strength is not only his experience, but the support of friends around him, working to a common goal.  There's a hierarchy to this structure, and Picard is at the top of it, but he's no tyrant.  Even Shinzon had his trusted adviser, the Reman who looked after him most of his life, someone he implicitly trusted.

So many of us only pretend to work within structures of this kind.  Yet we're also incredibly selfish, pretending one moment to be looking out for others and exploiting that support for our own ambitions the next.  It's all a game of shadows and air, producing insincerity and a distorted version of reality that we convince ourselves to be real.  Yet it isn't.  When Shinzon meets Picard, and Picard meets Shinzon, it gives each of them pause.  It creates a new Romulan paradigm.  The old one is what Shinzon speaks of.  The new one is a holding pattern, a new evaluation, a choice.  If Shinzon chooses well, he could be rewarded.  If Picard chooses well, he too could be rewarded.

We're told constantly that our lives are a summation of our choices, and yet it's not the choices we make but the options presented to us that define who we become.  If the best choices are still awful, then we will probably not become a very good person.  If we have the luxury of good choices but make bad ones, then we truly are bad people.  Too often we assume that someone deserves to be living the life they have, whether that life is a good one or a bad one.

In what I term my exile, I constantly observe those who are in the same circumstances as me but who are nonetheless very different people.  I'm constantly trying to change my own circumstances, but all too often it seems those who see only my circumstances will do nothing to help me change them.  It's this indifference, this very Romulan mentality, believing that the change we want can happen without actively trying to make it happen (Picard's famous credo is "make it so," after all, and his best friend is an android with the dream to become more human).  I've been trying for a decade, but seem to be no closer now than before.

Part of it is because those around me are sticking together like mud, and like mud they're a giant mess that's hard to clean up, and mud being what it is they're not much aware of or particular care about what they are.  Mud is mud.  It's not really anything else but someone's perception of it.  There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but to some people it's horrible and to others it's fun to play in.  Romulans are mud.  People who blindly accept the status quo are mad.  People who try to change their circumstances without the necessary awareness to affect the change they seek are mud.

What I'm saying is that I wish this Romulan existence weren't so adhesive.  I wish that I weren't so aware of my circumstances.  That's always been my biggest problem.  Shinzon was certainly aware of his circumstances.  That's what led him to a radical sequence of events.  He wanted a revolution, but was too undisciplined to find lasting success with it.  He wouldn't be the only one.  Picard's pragmatism was the last straw.  Sure, Shinzon secretly wanted (pretty much needed) Picard to sacrifice himself so he could live, so there was only so far to go in that relationship, but that was only because there was no trust at all between them.

Trust goes hand-in-hand with conviction.  We're still primitive enough that we invariably view each other as competition, "survival of the fittest."  It doesn't seem to matter or occur to anyone that humans have existed for thousands of year.  We still tell ourselves that the only way to get what we want is to make sure the other guy doesn't.  This saddens me, not just because I remain a victim of this instinct, but because I don't know how to overcome it.  That's why I'm an exile.  That's why I don't know whether I'm Shinzon or Picard, or just the Romulan in the middle, incapable of exhibiting the necessary conviction to find myself in the circumstances I want, always struggling and bemoaning a fate that has continually deposited me in a sea of upheaval, watching those around me throwing all my ideas to pieces.  What is a dream but a vision that evaporates before your eyes?  I wouldn't know.

All I know is that Romulans are idiots.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

#521. Fan Tango: Harry Potter (the movies)

subject: Harry Potter (the movies)

overview: Believe it or not, but you've got the movies to thank for the popularity of the books.  Not every book that features young kids becomes a blockbuster phenomenon.  The publicity machine for Harry Potter began when a Hollywood producer figured J.K. Rowling's creation could make a good movie.  The deal was signed in 1998, the same year Scholastic released the first book in the U.S.  The first movie was released in 2001, fortuitously at the same time as Peter Jackson's first Lord of the Rings flick, The Fellowship of the Ring, and together they helped create an entirely new franchise culture that endures to this day.

Original filmmaker Chris Columbus opted to make the first few films family friendly, which was appropriate because they featured a remarkably young cast: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger.  For adults, watching a virtual who's who of British actors in supporting roles was a huge part of the initial draw, starting with the perfect casting of Alan Rickman in the crucial role of Severus Snape.  John Cleese now appears to be an oddity and leftover from this era as Nearly Headless Nick.  Of course, the bulk of the novels had yet to be written at this point, so no one really knew how powerful the saga would ultimately become (not that John Cleese can't be taken seriously).  Kenneth Branagh (who also added credibility to Thor as director) was an obvious standout in the second film.  John Williams provided the basis for the distinctive scoring that would accompany the entire series.

Columbus was replaced in the third film by the more artistic-minded Alfonso Cuaron, who had the benefit of adding Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon (replacing the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore) to the cast.  Mike Newell established a more neutral and epic tone in the fourth film, while David Yates guided the remaining four films to the story's conclusion.

There are eight films in all, the seventh and final book being split in two (a precedent the Twilight Saga ran with, and Peter Jackson himself has used to some controversy for his adaptation of The Hobbit).  Radcliffe, Grint and Watson remain at the heart of the films, and as they grow older bring greater maturity and weight to their respective roles.  Gambon, Rickman, and Ralph Fiennes (as Voldemort starting in the fourth film) continue the tradition of masterly representing a more adult presence, for anyone who still needs such an excuse to enjoy the series.  The eighth and final film was released ten years after the first, in 2011.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) The highlight of the first film is Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid, the friendly giant of a groundskeeper who is Harry's introduction to his wizarding heritage and future.  His presence isn't condescending, however, but frequently comical.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) As in the book, Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart is the standout element, while Radcliffe and Grint exhibit their only noticeable growing pains, especially in the sequence with the flying car.  Jason Isaacs introduces himself to American audiences as Lucius Malfoy.  Dobby the impish house elf steals the show.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Oldman begins his second career in understated supporting roles (see also: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy).  While I'm not exactly disappointed with the movie, it doesn't compare with my love for the book, which remains my favorite in that version of the series, though the sequence of Harry riding Buckbeak the hippogriff is a standout.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Nailing the scope that the book didn't quite capture, this is my favorite film.  Everything works perfectly, especially the climactic sequence featuring Fiennes' debut as Voldemort.  Also features the first significant work of Robert Pattinson, and it's because of this that I become a fan, and why I struggle to care about the Twilight movies.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Featuring the best wizarding duel of the films (between Dumbledore and Voldemort) as well as the standout performance of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Harry and Dumbledore go the full Lord of the Rings in this one, while Jim Broadbent does his share of scene-stealing as Horace Sloghorn, and Tom Felton has his best showing as Draco Malfoy, the would-be assassin of Dumbledore.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) The beginning of the end sees Radcliffe, Grint and Watson with some of their best material and the tragic death of Dobby, as well as an innovative animated sequence featuring the origin of the title artifacts.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) The end of the end features the best of the previously hapless Matthew Lewis's Neville Longbottom, the dramatic reveal of Snape's true arc, and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, plus one last visit from Dumbledore.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

#520. Fan Tango: Harry Potter (the books)

subject: Harry Potter (the books)

overview: The story of how J.K. Rowling was working as a waitress and writing notes about Harry Potter on napkins is well-chronicled.  Obviously she went on to far greater success as a writer on the strength of the Boy Who Lived.  It was clear from the start that she knew the mythology of the story, which probably any other writer would have begun with the reign of terror under Voldemort in the wizarding community that was only brought to an end when he murdered Harry's parents (a bit like Batman's origins, really, with a far more impressive Crime Alley sequence) but was struck down when he moved on the baby who would grow up with a lightning scar as a result.  On his eleventh birthday Harry receives his first visit from the world he has never known, the giant Hagrid, come to deliver an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

So begins a saga.  Since Harry and his friends are all children and spend their days attending school, the initial books were a youthful phenomenon, but in time the appeal became irresistible across the reading spectrum, and became the vanguard to the new blockbuster film renaissance.  Harry grows up and learns more of what came before his time, meeting his godfather and forming an intense bond with headmaster Albus Dumbledore, which lasts all the way to Dumbledore's momentous death at the hands of Severus Snape, who has all along appeared to be the villain hiding in plain sight, but instead is the hidden link behind the heroic past and present.

Across seven books Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley mature into the champions capable of finally ending the threat of Voldemort.  My favorite remains Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book, in which godfather Sirius Black crystallizes the entire message of the series, requiring a redemption that was thrust upon him by fates worth than death, with the able assistance of unassuming werewolf Remus Lupin, the two of them old friends of Harry's late father and rivals of Snape.  It's the moment where Rowling's vision first becomes apparent, where Snape becomes something more than the bogeyman, opening up ample room for his increasingly complicated relationship with Harry, as well as further secrets of Snape's own past, including his surprising relationship with Harry's late mother.

The books became a publishing event starting with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000, something anyone who loved literature gravitated to bookstores for midnight releases.  Goblet of Fire was also the first of Rowling's expanded efforts, the books like the story increasingly elaborate and no less readable.  Anyone who remains a holdout is simply being contrarian.  These are some of the finest books not simply our age, but any.  Like Tolkien's Middle Earth and Lewis's Narnia before her, Rowling's Hogwarts will endure as a fantasy touchstone.  It's the standard by which Martin and Jordan will still be compared for years to come.  It's not children's literature.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997) Known around the world with the subtitle Philosopher's Stone, this is how it all began, with the curious Professor Quirrell serving not only as the first of many instructors in Defense Against the Dark Arts, but our first look at the returning Voldemort.  (309 pages)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999) Rowling begins the expansion of the mythology with Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, a complete charlatan who nonetheless provides readers with stark contrasts between expectation and reality in this wizarding world.  (341 pages)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) As described above, this is the definitive expansion of Harry's saga, blowing it wide open and revealing its true depth as well as displaying the first hints as to where it would ultimately go.  (435 pages)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) As Harry and his friends meet more of their peers from other schools, Voldemort finalizes his return with a dramatic climax in a graveyard.  The whole book is a tour de force for Rowling, displaying her incredible range.  (734 pages)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) This is the only installment where I'd say the overwhelming response to her creation actually got to Rowling.  Aside from the far greater amount of time it took to write the book, there's at least one subplot that doesn't resonate the way as the rest of the story (not just in this book, but across the series), Hagrid's mission to enlist the assistance of the giants, coming back with his half-brother.  But I have not yet reread the series, much less Order of the Phoenix, so this impression might always change.  (870 pages)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) Rowling starts aiming for truly epic fantasy and scores, not only as Harry and Dumbledore begin the search for Horcruxes, but some of the last secrets of Snape are revealed.  (652 pages)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) The conclusion that throws all the chips on the table, shattering the formula established in the previous six books, allowing Harry to spend the entire story out in the real world rather than the classroom, as the showdown with Voldemort finally occurs.  (759 pages)

Quidditch Through the Ages (2001)
Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (2001)
Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008) Shorter works that expand on the world of Harry Potter, spotlighting Rowling's considerable imagination.  Well worth checking out.

Monday, February 04, 2013

#519. Bruno Sammartino in the WWE Hall of Fame

For wrestling fans, the biggest news that will happen all year was just delivered.  Bruno Sammartino will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

For those who have no idea why this is significant, let me make a few concise bullet points:

  • Sammartino was "the man" in WWE prior to Hulk Hogan.  He was champion from 1963 to 1971 (really!) and again from 1973-1977 (really!).
  • He became increasingly bitter and alienated from the company with the changes made during the Hogan and Steve Austin eras.
Now, prior to the Hogan era, WWE was a regional promotion just like every wrestling promotion at the time, meaning that companies only competed within specific regions.  WWE's region was New York, which was the reason why Madison Square Garden became known as wrestling's mecca, and mostly because Sammartino headlined so many successful cards there.  As you can tell from how long he was champion, Bruno was the centerpiece of the company for many years.  

By the dawn of the WrestleMania era, Sammartino was retired from active competition, although his son David competed at the first one in 1985.  Bruno himself participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania II, which was won by Andre the Giant.

I've had a pretty tenuous relationship as far as being a fan of Sammartino over the years.  I've had a hard time respecting his position on modern wrestling, although certainly I no doubt have a far different perspective, and my actual experience of his career was originally about as limited as you can get.  The more I saw of him, though, the easier it became to admire his legacy.  By necessity, though, Sammartino's legacy has always been just out of focus in WWE's retrospectives, because he himself had tried so hard to reject what brought him national fame.

Famously in 2010, Bret Hart reconciled with WWE and Shawn Michaels, following a similar estrangement that began with the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" at Survivor Series in 1997.  No one thought it would ever happen, even though several years prior he'd cooperated enough to at least put together a DVD retrospective.  I was intimately familiar with Hart's career, actively watching during his peak period.  A more recent surprise was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's comeback starting in 2011.  He hadn't been active in wrestling since 2004, transitioning to a movie career starting in 2001.  No one ever expected that to happen, either.

Bruno was never comfortable with the cartoonish Hogan or the irreverent Austin.  WWE has become more and more kid-friendly in recent years, and apparently someone finally convinced the "Living Legend" to have another look.  He now sees that the product is respectable again, at least as far as he's concerned.  

Selfishly, I hope this also means a career retrospective DVD compilation.  Even if the matches aren't filmed to the quality expected by modern fans, it will still be a huge opportunity to reclaim history.  Wrestling is an art.  Sammartino favored a strongman style, but he was also quick on his feet, in ways that you can only appreciate by seeing him in action.

The original Italian sensation, Bruno will always loom large over wrestling.  I'm glad and relieved and shocked and thrilled that he's finally come to an agreement with the company he helped establish fifty years ago, putting aside the disagreements of the past.  


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...