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In this episode: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone | The Episode II Trailer | Monsters, Inc.

Well, folks (and I say that without any hat-tipping to George W.), here I am, finally writing some new reviews! I've been so out of practice, I had to scrap my first effort and start again from scratch. But here they are, just in time for Thanksgiving!



Harry Party This book was originally titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the U.K. Why did they change the title and alter some of the language when it was released in the U.S.? Because some marketers somewhere, thinking they knew what was good for American kids, thought those same kids were idiots and would not know what a philosopher was and that sorcerers are just plain cooler anyway. Well, in the dictionary, a philosopher's stone is defined as, peculiarly, exactly what J. K. Rowling made it to be in her first Harry Potter book. Huh! I'm sure if the marketers and editors had left the book alone, it still would have done just as well as it has now.

But I digress.

I enjoyed the Harry Potter book. I've read two, with the third sitting on my desk waiting for me to finish re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring... You see, I want to have the Ring book fresh in my mind before the Lord of the Rings movie comes out in a few weeks so the movie doesn't completely supersede my own imagination's version.

But I digress.

I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the movie) very much, despite some misgivings about it. What the movie was missing was a spark, and sense of unbridled fun and magic, something that would have elevated it from an engaging movie into a truly wonderful one. I do believe the movie works very well and that kids—and adults!—will be seeing the movie over and over. What's good about the movie is how much it follows the book. Sure, some things had to be cut and truncated, but I think Chris Columbus did a good job in keeping to the book. *ERK!* I know, I did just say that. That Chris Columbus did a good job.

Chris Columbus is not a great director. He's okay. If he didn't have Adventures in Babysitting under his belt, I'd rank him even lower, but he does, so I don't. I'm glad Chris reigned in his plastic slapstick sensibility for Harry Potter and kept to the task at hand because the movie is better for it. But the missing spark comes, sadly, because Chris doesn't have that spark. Ouch. Oooo. Harsh. But true, I think. It's a difficult thing to be critical about because the movie is a success, yet I know I and probably others wanted it to be, for lack of finding a better term than I've already used, magical. I'm hoping The Lord of the Rings has that spark. I haven't seen anything Peter Jackson's directed—no, not even Heavenly Creatures—so I don't know what to expect.

But I digress.

What keeps Harry Potter fun is the details that were left in. For instance, it would have been very easy to cut the ghosts. They play no role in the movie, but had a big one in the book. Thankfully, they are still there. They aren't explained, but in the movie they don't really need to be. They just are. Like the moving paintings and the owls. The world of Hogwarts is more dense and interesting thanks to these details.

What was also kept from the book was the dark tone. The movie didn't shy away from kids getting hurt, from monsters and dark creatures, and from Harry's sadness at having never known his parents. This is not a saccharine happy movie, but a really nice grounded one. I know, for a movie about wizards and spells and trolls and such, calling it "grounded" is a little like calling Michael Jackson the King of Pop. I mean, does anyone really still call him that? Certainly that title should be split up between all the too-sexy-for-their-age pop tykes and the I-can-sing-to-a-Casio-beat boy bands.

But I digress.

The movie also suffers from being rushed at times. The thing is already two hours thirty-two minutes long, yet it doesn't feel that long. It would have been perfectly acceptable to add 10 or 15 minutes back in the movie to tighten up some sloppy dialogue and make things more logical. There was concern that the movie would already be too long for kids, but those same kids read the 700+-page fourth book in the series, so it should not have been an issue. If the material is good and keeps your attention, the length is not important. Take Superman: The Movie. I watched it again with some friends on DVD the other week. It takes them 50 minutes just to set up the back story! Then comes the rest of the movie, which is a movie in itself. Superman originally ran something like 2 hours 30 minutes. But I saw it over and over and over as a kid because it was a good movie.

But I digress.

Central to the story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a kid called Sigmund Hallywaggle. Wait, that's not right. Let me consult my notes... Harry Potter. That's the kid's name: Harry Potter. I remember he's also central to the books, so it's good they kept that detail the same as well.

Harry is played by almost-newcomer Daniel Radcliffe. He looks good as Harry Potter, and he's got some nice moments, but he's not completely there. I think he has it in him, but that he wasn't given the right kind of direction or something. He's got sort of these hot flashes of good acting that pop up here and there in the movie. Perhaps it was the overwhelming task of having to BE this character that bizillions of kids all over the world know inside and out. Maybe it was the sometimes sketchy writing (I'll get flamed by some Muggles for this, but the book was not completely solid on the writing front itself). When Harry is wandering around Diagon Alley, it's like he's been there before, he's so non-reactive. When he meets the centaur in the dark forest, there's no, "Oh. Hey. You're a centaur! WOW!" The two just start talking like the centaur's a bobby (that's "cop" for the American audience) or something. Oh, well. I think Daniel will get better as the movies go along, and he certainly has that unassuming innocent demeanor that cloaks a strong heart.

I really liked Rupert Grint—RUPERT GRINT!—as Ron Weasley. Rupert. Grint. Exactly the name a kid playing Ron should have! Rupert has some great facial expressions and is such a charmer. It's exactly who Ron was to me in the book. He's funny-looking, awkward, but really a good kid. Good job, Rupert. Here's to Rupert. Great going, Grint! Etc. etc. etc.

Hermione Granger is played by Emma Watson (not Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves, part of Lars von Trier's "And I Did It All with a Cheap Video Camera!" series). Emma is a very beautiful little girl, so it's nice they gave her that wiggy hair to offset it (wiggy meaning freaky wacky, not it's a wig, though perhaps it is). She's nicely snotty and could certainly grow up to be a supermodel if she keeps up her attitude, though I doubt that's what's in store for Hermione as a character. Emma is good, if a little kid-like in her acting ability. She'll get better, too, I think.

The adults are all very good. Robbie Coltrane is perfect as Hagrid, as is Alan Rickman as Snape. Alan cracked me up with his very funny melodramatic take on Snape. It's like Alan Rickman making fun of himself playing Hans Gruber. I loved it. Maggie Smith and Richard Harris are good, of course, but their characters have little to do in the story from an acting standpoint.

One point I want to make about why this movie is better as a kid's movie is that it's smarter than usual. The marketers may have changed Philosopher to Sorcerer, but for the most part, this movie assumes the audience is intelligent. George Lucas wrote Star Wars I for kids, so I heard, and in the end he alienated many fans of the original two movies. (Since my review for that flick here, I have seen Episode I a few more times. And I almost can't stand watching it now aside from the pod race.) Jar Jar's an idiot. Anakin's just an emotionless kid. And they both accomplish great things through accident and happenstance.

The kids in Harry Potter owe something to accident and happenstance as well, but not very much. They're great kid characters who run around where they're not supposed to, ignore the rules set by adults, and make bold decisions based on their own smarts. What more fun could that be for a kid? They are characters who, unlike Jar Jar, are not insulting. Kids are smart and clever and creative, and I couldn't be happier that something clever and creative like Harry Potter has taken hold of their imaginations.

One fear would be that the movies will keep the kids from reading the future volumes of the book series now that the Harry Potter world has been rendered visually for them. I wouldn't worry about this. I think the kids are so into the story that they won't want to wait for the movies to catch up. When the fifth book comes out, it'll be a hit as well.

Finally, I have to talk about the special effects, because it's in my contract—though, strangely, monetary compensation is not. The effetcs were just okay. Mostly mediocre, in fact. There were some really nicely-done effects, like the moving staircases and the little dragon, but the Quiddich match was sadly underaccomplished. The whole Quiddich sequence is really good and exciting, but when a kid on a broom suddenly looks like he or she was rendered using equipment from your local cable access station, the reality of the scene is broken. Warner Bros. knew this movie was going to make oodles of cash, so I wish they'd loosened the purse strings a little more and done the effects right. Had the amount of money that was no doubt wasted on Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Exactly the Same People been spent on Harry Potter, it would have been eye-poppingly excellent.

But I digress.

Oh, wait. No I don't!

A brief mention of the full trailer for Star Wars: Episode II—Molestation of the Lab-Grown Beings is in order.

First, you can tell the movie was not shot on film. Or that it was shot on really shitty film—say from Tajikistan. It looks crappy.

Second, my friend Carla summed it up the best when she said the trailer looked like "Merchant Ivory in space." Word.


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Grr! Boo!

It's a little late to be doing a review of this movie, but I have an important thesis I want to explore, if only for a very brief moment.

I liked Monsters, Inc. I enjoyed it and laughed. I love the characters, Boo and Sulley especially. The CG animation was top notch, blowing any other CG movie out of the water (if Final Fantasy "star" Aki's hair moved even as closely realistically as Sulley's fur did, she may have fooled the poorly-eyesighted ancients in the Academy and gotten a nomination for Best Hair). The story was fun and clever, the detail was anally perfect, and the cinematography... Hey, next time you see the movie, or the first time you see it, watch for the HANDHELD SHOTS. Yes, indeed, the geniuses at Pixar rendered some shots as if they were shot by a handheld camera. BRILLIANT!

Here's why, though, I was bothered by Monsters, Inc. and did not enjoy it as much as Toy Story or Toy Story 2. Implied audience stupidity. As I touched on above in the Harry Potter review, it's common and easy for the people in charge of entertainment to dumb down their product to reach the lowest common denominator. They never, ever learn that that is just as much a hindrance to a movie's success as keeping it smart. Trust the audience, give them a good movie, and they will reward you.

When a filmmaker doesn't trust the intelligence of an audience, he/she/they/it will add unnecessary dialogue and scenes to cover their asses and make sure EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT'S GOING ON. In Monsters, Inc., for instance, there's the whole opening dialogue by Waternoose where he explains Monster World's power source. It's information that would have been discovered and understood as the movie went along anyway, but JUST TO BE SURE WE ALL KNEW WHAT WAS GOING ON, the writers and director decided to add this redundant information.

Such redundant and "Hey, in case you didn't notice, let me explain it to you" writing can seep in in even tinier ways. At the end of the movie (skip this if you don't want it ruined for you), Sulley has a line where he "reminds" Mike that laughs are more powerful than screams. A very tiny line, really not important, but if you consider that the audience already understands this because we've seen it happen and that Mike definitley understands it because he's living that reality, the need to add that dialogue is pointless. Who's the dink in the audience that will come out of the movie thinking, "But why did they go back to collecting screams in the end?" and, more importantly, why does it matter that such a dink be coddled by the filmmakers? If they didn't get it, they didn't get it. It'd be like Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense watching the ring fall to the floor, then saying, "Oh, my gosh! I... I'm dead! I'm DEAD! I had no idea! How could that be? Oh my gosh!"

I watched Toy Story again after seeing Monsters, and it was so nice to see a movie create a world so cleverly and completely without the use of useless dialogue. Buzz did not say, after seeing the ad for himself on the TV and crashing to the floor of the stairwell, "By golly, Woody was right! I'm just a toy. My, how ignorant and silly I've been." There was no point at the beginning, after the toys panic about the birthday party, where a "stupid" toy says, "Why's everyone so worried?" and someone else says, "Because, stupid, any one of those presents could be something that replaces one of us!" No, instead, that point comes across deftly through natural dialogue and character interaction. There is no question what is going on, and there's no attempt to explain it to any dinks who may be watching.

Monsters, Inc. is a very good movie, and I actually can't wait to watch it again. It's just that the writing was not on the same level as the Toy Story movies. Pixar is still a home-run-hitting studio, but they need to be careful their writing doesn't start slumping toward the usual Hollywood standards. Being smart is what made them good, and keeping smart will be keeping them at the top.

Thank you. We now return you to our regularly scheduled rant, "Why aren't there enough baggers in grocery stores any more?"




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©2001 Steven Lekowicz except
Harry Potter poster ©2001 Warner Bros. and
Monsters, Inc. logo and graphic © Disney/Pixar