Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I) * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Writer: Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy

Running Length: 147 minutes

Synopsis: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is growing stronger by the day, and now has control over both the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) drop out of school and attempt to seek out Voldemort’s horcruxes as destroying them will weaken the Dark Lord. Nowhere is safe for the trio, and they are constantly on the run. En route, they find out about the Deathly Hallows, and how it could be a key in the eventual showdown against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. 

Review: Call me a party pooper, but the only thought I had when the end credits rolled on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was “is that it?”. These three words will pretty much sum up my entire review of this half of the complete movie – I had believed it was a flawed decision (apart from the obvious monetary gains for Warner Brothers) to split the movie into two, and having now seen the first half I am sure of it. Coming off the decision to excise the climactic battle in the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), the expectation was that Deathly Hallows will be a spectacle in every sense of the word. However, since the book is further split into two films, there’s once again no payoff in this first installment. Deathly Hallows Part I feels like a continuation of the “filler movie” trend that plagued the previous film, and it’s a largely tedious, meandering two and a half hour movie that, while atmospheric, is plot-wise virtually dead in the water. 

Deathly Hallows is a narratively dense book, but much of the narrative does not translate well on screen, and with Steve Kloves’ screenplay being slavishly faithful (even more so than before, given the lack of timing constraints this time round), this becomes even more apparent. Much of the film involves Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from one (admittedly scenic) location to the next, and sitting around in a tent looking morose. It already was a drag in the book but when depicted in the film the flaws become even more apparent. 

The Harry Potter movies have never really been kind to viewers who are not acquainted in the Potter-verse, but in these last few installments the divide has been even greater than before. Prior knowledge is a necessity if you want to make sense of the ins and outs of Deathly Hallows, and can be frustrating even for audiences who have faithfully watched every Potter movie to date. So much has been left out in the transition from page to screen, and yet the film can still run a butt-numbing 147 minutes, which lends strongly to the argument that the editing for the film needed to be far tighter than its current state. 

Whilst acting has never been stellar in the Harry Potter series, the thespian deficiencies of the main leads, in particular Daniel Radcliffe, have become more pronounced as the films trend towards a more adult sensibility, and kiddish wonder is no longer sufficient. The exception is Emma Watson, who manages to do a decent job, but there is a tendency for Yates to dump most of the heavy lifting on her, and in a way diverts attention away from the “true” lead of Radcliffe/Potter. And, like its predecessors, there’s the British Who’s Who of the movie industry, who unfortunately all seem to be present just to lend their name to the film – literally a waste of talent. 

Of course, for such a big budget movie it’s not all a bust. Yates has proven his proficiency in action sequences, and the higher-octane scenes in Deathly Hallows are as good as any action movie out there. CGI has also improved by leaps and bounds, and digital effects are near seamless in this film. Warner’s inability to convert the film into 3D in time for release may not have been a bad thing – whilst there are definitely scenes that would do well in 3D, so much of the film is static that the payoff wouldn’t have been that great. 

Perhaps when viewed together with Part II, Deathly Hallows would average out to be the finale that Potter fans have waited for. However, taken solely on its own merits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I feels unsatisfying and unfocused, a filmic coitus interruptus that takes way too long to… not get anywhere. 

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Clash of the Titans * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director:  Louis Leterrier

Writers: Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 screenplay of the same name by Beverley Cross

Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton 

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: A retelling of the Greek tale of Perseus and a pseudo-remake of the original 1981 film Clash of the Titans, this remake 29 years later stars Sam Worthington as Perseus, demi-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson). Like many heroes, he has to embark on a ten-day journey wrought with danger in order to save the beautiful Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) from being sacrificed to the Kraken, a terrible sea monster. Along the way he meets both friend and foe, and in particular has to make a dangerous journey to the Underworld to obtain the head of Medusa to subdue the Kraken.

Review: Let’s get this out of the way, right away. DO NOT watch Clash of the Titans in 3D unless you’re feeling generous and want to contribute extra dollars to the cinema operators’ bottom line for a diminished experience. If Avatar is the reason 3D will flourish, “3D” shows like Clash of the Titans will be the reason that cinemagoers will eventually tire of the money grab and start going back to 2D. I spent 10 minutes in Clash of the Titans without my 3D glasses on and it made virtually no difference whatsoever, and in all seriousness the most 3D aspect of the film were the Chinese subtitles. It’s retrofitted 3D and done in a very poor manner, to the point that it detracts from the experience.

Having said that, take away the 3D element and this remake of Clash of the Titans is perfectly serviceable as a pre-summer action blockbuster. Although it takes a while to get started, once the action begins the film’s actually pretty entertaining. Many of us will probably not compare this remake favourably with the Ray Harryhausen original for sentimental, nostalgic reasons, but it cannot be denied that the 2010 version works slightly better because of the improved visuals and a lower cheesiness level.

The CGI found in Clash of the Titans is mostly top-notch, and in particular the Scorpiochs and Medusa are very well-rendered and almost believable – well as much as monsters can look believable. However, certain aspects don’t work that well, including the terribly cheesy “glowing armour” that the Gods wear. It almost feels like a snippet from the old Superman movies, with all the soft focus and dreamy lighting attempting perhaps to make Olympus look more ethereal. It does not work in the slightest.

Sam Worthington basically reprises his role from Avatar, even sporting a similar buzz cut, but here in Clash of the Titans he is never given a chance to really act. In fact, despite the presence of esteemed actors like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes (as Hades), the acting is weak across the board and characters never become (pardon the expression) three dimensional. This is particularly apparent in the superfluous romantic subplot between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton), which is so poorly developed that one wonders why Leterrier even chose to leave it in the film.

It’s likely that audiences who watch Clash of the Titans in 2D (like it was meant to be watched) would be more charitable towards the film, but for those who watch it in “3D” may not feel so generous. In 2D, the movie is generally entertaining and a tolerable remake of the original film. In 3D, all the flaws become more pronounced – blurry action sequences, dim visuals, eye-watering (in a bad way)3D implementation – and coupled with a higher-priced ticket, makes for a very negative viewing experience.

Rating:  * * ½ (out of four stars)

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How to Train Your Dragon * * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy / Animation

Directors:  Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois

Writers: Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, based on the book How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, David Tennant

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) feels like a fish out of water in the Viking village of Berk. Although his father and village chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is a veteran dragon hunter, Hiccup prefers to spend his time designing gadgets and pining for spunky village girl Astrid (America Ferrera). However, Stoick makes the decision to have Hiccup train with the blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) on attacking dragons, despite his protests. At the same time, Hiccup chances upon an injured dragon in the woods and attempts to bond with it. He soon learns that the Viking-dragon feud could be nothing more than a misunderstanding, and that dragons are not as fearsome as they are thought to be.

Review: Dreamworks Animation has almost always played second fiddle to Pixar in the realm of computer animated movies, and since the excellent Shrek, there has never really been another Dreamworks film that could come close to any of Pixar’s films. This changes with the release of How to Train Your Dragon, which is an excellent film in many aspects, and quite possibly a very strong contender for the best animated film of the year (yes, kind of a big statement given that both Shrek 4 and Toy Story 3 are due in cinemas soon).

How to Train Your Dragon is a quintessential family film – although it offers something for the kids (though there are certain scarier portions that may not be all that suitable for the very young), the film is also engaging enough for the parents and other adult audiences. The visuals are colourful and fun, and this is the first film that I’ve watched in 3D since Avatar that seems to be worth the price of admission, and really helps to make the experience a more immersive one. Coincidentally, there are some similarities to Avatar apart from the 3D experience, but none intentionally so, I am sure.

The storyline follows a basic formula – outcast kid makes good and allows others to see the error of their ways – but the story is well-told and the clichés don’t matter as much. It helps that the dragons, initially portrayed as vicious creatures, turn out to be rather harmless and adorable (one word: kittens!), greatly enhancing the cuteness quotient of the movie. The main voice cast is also rather accomplished, and despite the strange choice of having many of the characters speak with a Scottish accent, everything works very well together.

How to Train Your Dragon has ticks in almost every box of the checklist – the movie looks good in both 2D and 3D, there are some thrilling (but some running a tad long) action sequences, the voice acting ranges from good to great, and the “take-home” family values message is a very positive one that parents would certainly endorse.  In a sea of mediocre releases, How to Train Your Dragon stands head and shoulders above many recent films, and if you’re hankering for a good 3D experience, then this would probably be your best bet.

Rating:  * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Alice in Wonderland * * *

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover

Voice Cast: Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee 

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old, and it seems that she has completely forgotten about her first trip down the rabbit hole. However, when she’s practically coerced into a marriage, Alice decides to takes a time out from the proposal party, only to find herself falling down yet another rabbit hole, once again travelling to Wonderland. There, she finds the same cast of oddball characters – the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Absolem the caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), and more. And of course there are the Wonderland queens – the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) wants to off Alice’s head, but the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) would like to regain her reign over Wonderland with Alice’s help. The way to do it? Get Alice to use the Vorpal Sword on Frabjous Day to kill the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee).

Review: There’s no doubt that Tim Burton is a visual genius, and once again it shows in the weird and wonderful depiction of Wonderland in this film. It’s not really kid-friendly, but there’s no denying that the oddity of it all has a queer charm (see the Red Queen’s swollen head for a good example). One wonders how isolated the actors must have been because it seems almost the entire movie is composed of CG imagery.

The flora and fauna of Wonderland is quite possibly almost as detailed as the world of Avatar, but the one differentiating factor is that whilst 3D enhances the Avatar universe, sadly in this case watching the film in 3D will likely diminish the viewing experience. Yes, that’s right – if you have a choice, try not to watch the movie in 3D. The bright colours of the background end up looking muted and dull through 3D glasses, and the experience is not immersive at all. In fact, during the action sequences, 3D actually looks blurry and is not a particularly comfortable viewing experience. Perhaps it’s because Avatar has now set the standard so high, Alice in 3D feels nothing more than a poorly executed gimmick.

This is also a movie where the voice talents fare better than actors who are physically present. Whilst Mia Wasikowska is perfectly decent as Alice, her character is rather colourless to begin with and there’s little depth to speak of. And as always Johnny Depp is cast as yet another quirky Burton-esque reinterpretation of a classic character, though in this instance the performance feels a little perfunctory. My favourite in the movie is actually Helena Bonham Carter, and much as it is totally over the top and she spares no expense in chewing up the scenery, it’s a really fun performance to watch.

One of the biggest issues I have with this incarnation of Alice in Wonderland is how the reimagining has actually turned the movie into a generic fantasy movie starring well-loved characters from the Wonderland universe. This is particularly apparent in the showdown between Alice and the Jabberwocky – the only reasons (I feel) this entire segment exists is to make sure there’s enough fodder for spinoff video games to capitalize on, and to appease cinemagoers who demand action sequences in every movie they watch. Make no mistake – the movie is entertaining enough, and certainly worthy of a trip to the cinema, but there’s this nagging sensation that something had been lost in translation.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)

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Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief * * 1/2

 Genre: Fantasy

Director:  Chris Columbus

Writer: Craig Titley, based on the novel Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Cast: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandria Daddario, Catherine Keener

Running Length: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is shocked to discover, after an attack by his substitute Math teacher, that he is actually the demigod offspring of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), and that his best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is actually a satyr sent to protect him. Zeus (Sean Bean) has had his mighty lightning bolt stolen, and he points the finger of blame at Percy. Ushered to the safety of demigod-training Camp Half-Blood, run by a centaur headmaster called Chiron (Pierce Brosnan), Percy needs to prove his innocence to Zeus by reclaiming the lightning bolt, aided by Grover and Annabeth (Alexandaria Daddario), daughter of Athena. Things get a little more complicated when Hades (Steve Coogan) abducts Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener), and the trio must make their way literally to hell and back, in the process stopping a war between the gods and the destruction of Earth (as always).

Review: Haven’t we all been here before? The answer is yes, of course we have – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (strangely the local film title is truncated, dropping the bit about Olympians) feels very derivative, almost like a mutant child of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, even though it is based on its own bestselling novel series. We even have Chris Columbus helming the movie, the same auteur that brought the first two Harry Potter novels to the big screen. But is the film any good, or just another “me too!” movie trying to cash in on Potter-mania?

It’s a mixed bag – Percy Jackson is a rather entertaining movie, chock-full of action set pieces and eye-popping CG visuals, but it also suffers from logical flaws and is narratively very sparse, especially for an “origin movie”. Of course, this does help to move the film along at a good pace, but there’s very little content behind the action sequences and creates little emotional attachment to even Percy Jackson, which makes the viewing experience a very passive one. However, the film does manage to check all the boxes without committing any major mistakes, which means it actually fares a little better than the first Harry Potter film.

Much like the Harry Potter franchise, apart from the young leads the remainder of the cast is composed mainly of rather famous faces. However, most of these are walk on roles that aren’t all that memorable, except for Uma Thurman’s deliciously campy turn as the most fashion savvy Medusa I have ever seen.

Of all the fantasy films that have surfaced after Harry Potter, Percy Jackson is one of the few that shows enough promise to become a viable franchise – the Greek mythos is relatively interesting, and if the series takes off then hopefully the characters will gradually become more fleshed out over the next few movies. It seems like a sequel is already being green lit, so this is definitely the one to watch out for, especially after the conclusion of the Harry Potter franchise in 2011.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

 

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