Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Trailers: Avatar and Inception

I gather that quite a few people - perhaps they're restrained to the Internet, but I doubt it - are actually excited about James Cameron's new film Avatar. I've always thought I'm just a bit out of the American mainstream, but I honestly cannot comprehend how anyone would give a damn about the movie after seeing the trailer.

Avatar has two major selling-points: James Cameron's return to directing and the innovation of 3D CGI motion-capture with "3D virtual cameras." While I have no doubt the technology is impressive, the trailer does little to distinguish itself from various Final Fantasy XIII trailers. They've both got impressively exaggerated geography, flying islands, too-shiny surfaces, and mysterious races with unnecessary apostrophes in their names (Na'Vi, fal'Cie). Alas, I suspect the videogame will have the better script. Or at least the less-painful and embarrassing script.

It's hard to believe that James Cameron hasn't made a movie - aside from a deep-sea documentary or two - since Titanic. And yet Cameron doesn't seem to have moved on that much: the subject matter of Avatar seems to resemble earlier Cameron films like Aliens and The Abyss, though Avatar also seems to have an eco-friendly message - I can't help but wonder how many beautiful Na'Vi trees the film's doubtless brutish humans will despoil. Big budget, new technology, ecological consciousness... Avatar won't be Cameron's Waterloo, but it may be his Waterworld.

The film, aside from its technical aspects, seems designed by committee. According to all-knowing Wikipedia, Cameron wanted to replicate "every single science fiction book I read as a kid." Alas, all those separate stories seem to have blended together into something utterly generic-looking. Wikipedia also explains that parts of the Avatar tie-in videogame worked their way into the movie itself; clearly this is a film with coherent artistic and aesthetic visions. Consider Cameron's persistent dedication to his craft, his drive to produce the best of all blockbusters: "he kept tweaking his Na'Vi aliens, asking his all-male crew over and over "Would you want to do her?" Oh well, Cameron's doing nothing new with awkward sexualization: Disney executives apparently try and ensure that any "Disney princesses" are "fuckable." (Link, alas, doesn't have full text of that article)

The Avatar trailer is almost entirely wordless, perhaps to accommodate MST3K-style mockery . The one line we hear in the trailer is Cameron patting himself on the back: "This is great." As you might have guessed, I don't agree. Another wordless trailer, however, has me very excited. Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors who has made films to rival Cameron's in their popular success, yet his filmmaking philosophy is radically different. Cameron, like Lucas, loves CGI and new filmmaking technology. Nolan is disappointed when he can't film a real stuntman really flying over real Hong Kong. While Cameron is taking vehicle designs from his game developers, Nolan is in his garage designing and building scale-model Batmobiles. And while both Cameron and Nolan can make damn good popcorn movies, Nolan's are far deeper and far smarter.

After The Dark Knight made over $500 million domestically, quite a few people expected Nolan's next film would be another Batman. Instead, Nolan decided to do a science fiction film called Inception. Though Warner Bros. hasn't said too much about the plot, there are some indications that the plot will bear resemblances to The Matrix, some Philip K. Dick films and other such movies about the nature of reality. The trailer shows a surreal fight taking place in a hallway that seems to be tilting around the combatants. Yet the few seconds of fighting seem to lack the "style" and "cool" that made the Matrix films seem inhuman. This is a real fight, surreal sci-fi setting or not. Indeed, the film seems to have a somewhat gritty look reminiscent of Nolan's Batman films, which seems appropriate for a film where (to quote a tagline) "Your mind is the scene of the crime." Nolan has done well with crime (The Dark Knight, Memento, Insomnia) and with the fantastic (The Prestige); I hope he can combine the two "styles."

Time will tell if it's good, but as of right now Inception is just about my most-anticipated film of 2010. I doubt it will be as popular as The Dark Knight, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were as good. And I have no doubts that it will be a finer film than Avatar.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tarantino Is Fighting for the People

My jury seems to be permanently out on this guy. His penchant for giddy mash-ups of obscure genres and insistence on subverting convention makes his movies suit cinephiles quite nicely. Then again, it is hard to argue that they do much else beyond such academic exercises. Then again, Quentin Tarantino's uncanny understanding of what makes movies tick comes with some serious talent to back it up. Then again, the man is downright devoid of taste. I could go on for quite a while, but the bottom line is: Tarantino is what he is, so go with it or go home.

If any premise is going to make Americans choose the former, it is that of "Inglourious Basterds." The titular men are a group of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt) who have decided to go into World War II France before any of their fellow troops do. Their plan is to cut their way through France, engaging any Nazis they find in polite discourse designed to expose the error of their ways... and then scalp them. Perhaps the most surprising thing for most audience members, however, will be just how little screen time the Basterds get.

The film has another protagonist, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish refugee, who operates a Paris cinema. She, ironically, finds herself closer to the film's symbolic front lines, as she confronts Joseph Goebbels and is forced to host the premiere of the propagandist's final flourish, a film about a famous Nazi sniper. The Basterds are charged, by the English military, to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering of Nazi officials and blow the theater to hell. Yet, Dreyfus has her own vengeful plans. As the night approaches and the characters converge on the theater, there is a revelation that raises the stakes of the mission far beyond what the Basterds could have imagined and, well, the rest is historical fiction.

The liberties that "Inglourious Basterds" takes with history are what make it as interesting as it is. It portrays a Nazi party in a state of paranoia. Hitler is a caricature and the men around him seem to know it. The Basterds have him flustered and he is looking to make grand gestures in an attempt to quell the fear among his men. The film's primary antagonist is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man charged with rounding up the Jews in France. He is shrewd, cool and, often, bizarre – everything history has attributed to Hitler. So, while the film's Hitler is absorbed with increasingly minute efforts at maintaining his empire, Landa is doing the dirty work. It is a good writing choice, as it allows Tarantino to, at once, lampoon history and rewrite it to great dramatic effect.

While the film's primary characters may be a bit surprising, this script is a strikingly conventional one for Tarantino. "Basterds" is largely devoid of the narrative digressions and convolutions for which he is known. (There are two brief, narrated asides. They are quite fun and actually made me want to see more.) He, instead, chooses to tell a straightforward story that is fueled by suspense. That suspense, however, is incredibly effective. The film's first major scene methodically builds extreme tension. There are a number of other, equally effective confrontations that, while they may not be fueled by vibrant characters, utilize the inherent tension of the setting to its utmost.

Tarantino's direction in these scenes is textbook. He never plays his hand too soon, allowing conversation to slowly unfold, revealing the characters' anger and fear with each line. Medium shots only give way to close-ups at the very last moments before the breaking point is reached. When the point does come, the violence is shocking and stylized, obviously, but it has also gained a significant amount of dramatic weight. Unfortunately, there are so many great scenes like this in the film's first four chapters that the climax in incapable of topping them. By the time the inevitable showdown is looming, the desire to see it happen far outweighs any interest in further delay. This final delay also seems to hurt the wonderfully constructed aura that Col. Landa has established, by revealing his motivations as something far pettier than expected. It takes some of the wind out of a climax that otherwise proves to be a potent mix of shocking irony, giddy catharsis and eerie symbolism – you know, grade-A Tarantino stuff.

Col. Landa, by the way, is played wonderfully. Christoph Waltz manages to make ordering cream sound like a death threat. He makes his character's monstrous powers tangible in the film's first standoff, as he calmly lets his victims languish in fear, manipulating the action with such dexterity that he seems to be directing the scene from within the film. Most of the other performances are firmly in the shadow of Waltz's, but there are plenty of solid ones here. Brad Pitt has plenty of fun with Lt. Aldo Raine. His backwater elocution is quite amusing and downright hilarious when Italian is added to the mix. Mélanie Laurent strikes a great balance with her character, displaying understandable fear and unadulterated drive in equal parts. Her application of rouge in the buildup to the climax is one of the film's most memorable visuals; it solidifies her as the film's true warrior. The ranks of the Basterds remain largely anonymous, apart from Eli Roth, who lays it on thick as the team's muscle and Til Schweiger, who is amusing as a psychopathic Nazi defector.

That "Inglourious Basterds" is the first Quentin Tarantino movie to be distributed by a major movie studio in the States is no surprise. This movie is the biggest crowd pleaser he will probably ever make. It is interesting to see the filmmaker take this turn; it suggests that he is finally tiring of his academic obsession with genre and expectation. Nevertheless, "Basterds" is unequivocally his work, painting a picture of a World War II that is fought in the cinemas as much as it is in the streets. Even if the story gets away from him a bit in the end, the film defies expectations in subtler ways than his past films have. It may not rock the boat nearly as much as "Pulp Fiction" did, but this movie's appealing premise allows it to indulge Tarantino's imagination as much as it does that of the audience – something that his other films never really did.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Marvel vs. Capcom 2: The Perils of Nostalgia

Few downloadable games have been more enthusiastically promoted by the gaming press than Marvel vs. Capcom 2. This isn't surprising, as many consider this fighting game from 2000 a classic of the genre. MvC2 is known for its huge roster of characters - there are twenty-eight characters from Capcom videogames and twenty-eight more from Marvel Comics properties. The game is 2D and sprite-based, so it looks somewhat archaic, but the graphics hold up far better than they would in a nine-year-old polygon-based game. The downloadable MvC2 isn't just a straight port of the original arcade game; online play and Trophy support have been added, as well as video filters to make the game look better in HD. Given my somewhat irrational affection for fighting games, I downloaded Marvel vs. Capcom 2 the first day it was available. I understand why it's a good game in theory, but I wish I had spent my fifteen dollars elsewhere.

What's wrong with MvC2? Well, for one thing, the game more or less assumes not only that you know how to play fighters, but also that you've played Marvel vs. Capcom 2 before. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the AI fighters are quite nasty; I'm not sure how exactly you're supposed to beat arcade mode without continuing, though you need to do so to earn Trophies. While there is an in-game "instruction manual," it's not terribly useful, and has the annoying fighting game problem of referring to buttons by their arcade counterparts. When I perform a Hadouken with Ryu, I do not press the LP (Light Punch) button, I press the Square button. I understand that you can change the controls around, but I wish MvC2 would make more concessions to the fact that it is appearing on a console, not in an arcade. Arcades, you may recall, are pretty much dead in the US.

While it's nice to have fifty-six characters, it's also a tad intimidating. When the game first appeared in arcades, not all the characters were available: they unlocked as the arcade's patrons played the game and earned "experience." Similarly, when Marvel vs. Capcom 2 appeared on the Dreamcast, Xbox, and Playstation 2, several characters were locked at the start of the game and had to be "bought" with points earned by playing the game. So while longtime players of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 won't have to labor to unlock their particular favorite fighters, new players can expect a gigantic learning curve. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has received rave reviews most everywhere, but most of the reviewers seem to be reviewing their memories of the game, not the game itself. It's one thing to wax nostalgic about days in the arcade or on the Dreamcast playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 until your fingers were sore. It's another thing to come into the game with no history of it - it's fresher, to be sure, than it was for the reviewers, but it's also a hell of a lot less fun.

Marvel vs. Capcom's graphics have aged, to be sure, but what's really old-fashioned about the game is its aesthetics. The Marvel characters in this game, for example, all have their nineties' outfits. This isn't too shocking for a character like Spiderman, but Wolverine's yellow outfit looks rather retro now that the general public thinks Wolverine dresses in black and looks like Hugh Jackman. At least the game's version of Storm doesn't have a mohawk. If I'm talking about dated aspects of Marvel vs. Capcom, I must also mention the infamous Morrigan sprite, which was good back in 1994. Morrigan's sprite was reused for many years; it got very old very quickly. For all its fault, however, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 looks pretty damn good on my HDTV; no one will think it's a new game, but neither will anyone cover their eyes in horror (unless maybe they take too close a look at that Morrigan).

Even when the game is driving you up a wall, Marvel vs. Capcom's charms are fairly obvious. Players can engage in all kinds of ridiculous "dream matches" between Marvel and Capcom characters or "relive" favorite fights from Marvel comics. Fights are chaotic and flashy and fun to watch, and button-mashing does sometimes lead to very cool attacks. A new player can often look cool, even if they don't have a great deal of fun. I do, however, question the way Capcom picked characters for this game. On the Marvel side, there are number of obscure X-Men characters (Marrow? Spiral? Omega Red?), but not a single member of the Fantastic Four? And no Punisher? The Capcom characters, on the other hand, overemphasize the Street Fighter games. Couldn't they have left joke character Dan out in favor of someone more interesting, like someone from Street Fighter Alpha? Or from a completely different franchise, like Breath of Fire or Ghosts and Goblins? There are so many characters in this game that you're surprised to see how many important ones are missing.

One of the most important features of the downloadable Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is its online play, which seems pretty good. Alas, it's not terribly beginner-friendly. People online seem to actually be good at the game. Newbies will bleed. Profusely. The MvC2 porters, Backbone, have also added a custom soundtrack feature to the game; Capcom just posted several new - and free - songs for the game online. New features like custom soundtracks may be small, but they show that someone has the right idea about how to create (or, in this case, port) games for current-generation systems.

I really wanted to like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and perhaps I eventually will like it, but I wish more had been done to make it accessible to players unfamiliar with the game. Cheap AI, a surfeit of characters, and mediocre instructions all add up to a game that is frankly maddening to me. I like fighting games; I'm probably above average in my fighter skills. And yet I've found myself hard pressed to get into MvC2. It's a damn good game, I'm sure, but it only shows its best side to the most devoted players. This is a shame. Perhaps it's just me, but a game where IronMan and Jill from Resident Evil face off against Wolverine and Mega Man should be just a little more... friendly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In "District 9," Two Is a Crowd

Oh, "District 9," how I loved you. Yet, you had to go and burn me... or make me pop like a sack of meat with a firecracker inside of it.

It was hard to ignore that first, cryptic trailer that came out a few months ago. The film simply looked like nothing else, with its ripped-from-a-news-broadcast footage of South Africa and the ominous spacecraft hovering, cemented in the skies above the city. A later trailer revealed that the film featured some action, but still left most of it shrouded in mystery. "District 9" is the brain child of first-time writer/director Neill Blomkamp, a protégé of Peter Jackson. Blomkamp, unlike his mentor, knows how to keep his running times in check. Unfortunately, it only takes his film about 30 minutes to more or less abandon everything it aspires to be.

Those first thirty minutes, though, are fascinating. Twenty years prior to the start of the film, a massive alien spacecraft parked itself over Johannesburg, then did nothing. The mysterious inactivity persisted for so long that government forces actually broke into the ship. Inside, they found countless, dying aliens. In an effort that walked the line between self-preservation and charity, the humans relocated the aliens to a slum outside of the city – District 9. The result, years later, is a strikingly familiar portrait of a race that has been segregated, alienated and forced into desperation. The humans, by and large, fear the aliens. While they are a wellspring of controversy among the humans, the aliens have been afforded few rights or dignities. Now, a private organization, Multinational United, has been hired to relocate the aliens to the promisingly-titled District 10.

"District 9," at first, is essentially a documentary. Blomkamp provides all of this background information through interviews with fictional experts and witnesses, and brilliant use of existing news footage. Obviously, there are special effects added to this footage, but their execution is seamless and presented with such believable context that they truly look as if they are taken from tomorrow night's news. Within this unnamed documentary, the film's premise gains an astonishing amount of relevance.

MNU does not evict the aliens from their homes in District 9 with brute force, but with an all-too-familiar mix of bureaucracy and military intimidation. We watch these evictions take place through on-the-scene camera crews hired by MNU, as they follow the project leader, Wikus Van De Merwe (played by the fairly talented unknown, Sharlto Copley). Hired by way of nepotism, he seems barely equipped for the job. Yet, his role is far more complex than this. He seems to be the only man who understands the alien language or has any considerable familiarity with District 9. He sometimes uses this knowledge to defuse tensions between the bewildered aliens and the tense military force. Other times, however, he openly manipulates the aliens, forcing them to sign forms that consent to eviction. The footage is downright fascinating, as the aliens become incredibly sympathetic, if only through the humans' methodical mistreatment of them.

As the film nears the half-hour mark, however, hiccups appear. Suddenly, we are following aliens, as they attempt to build a device. Are cameras following these aliens? How would that be possible? It is not; the documentary footage tapers away from this point, forward. The film is abruptly shifting into a completely different storytelling medium – a dramatic one. With this shift, all of the striking immediacy and unsettling relevance that comes with the documentary form wilts. The audience is left to hastily adjust its expectations of the film. This is no longer a story told in facts, on a grand scale. It is now something far more commonplace – a personal story – a fictional drama.

The rest of the film plays out as Van De Merwe is exposed to the device said aliens were creating. It affects him profoundly, and leads him to drastically reconsider his relationship with the aliens. The film's final act, having completely abandoned the subtle realism of the first act, is a bombastic action film. It becomes riddled with gory violence (alien weapons tend to pop humans... yes, pop them) and all of the depth that the film began with is trampled over until it barely flickers amid the chaos.

The action in the film's second half is suitably intense and well-executed but it has absolutely no place in a film that starts off the way "District 9" does. Furthermore, the non-documentary footage is shot in handheld, as well, seemingly to blur the lines between the two styles. It renders the film schizophrenic.

Van De Merwe's arc as a character slightly mitigates the sloppiness. Shortly after being exposed to the device, he is subjected to a truly perverse series of experiments that mark a momentary return to the documentary footage and easily the most emotional moments of the film. Later, when he finally decides to stand up for himself, the ensuing assault is extremely cathartic. He, however, ultimately proves to have selfish motivations. One could argue that his progression is designed to ironically mirror the humans' actions against the aliens, but his plotline is marred with so much pining for his wife and stilted heroism that it is difficult to divine a message from it all.

That is not to mention all of the popping going on. If Blomkamp were not a human himself, I would wonder if he hated us, portraying so many human misdeeds and then climaxing with a series of relentlessly gory killings. By the end of the film, in fact, there is little question that the humans are thoroughly petty and violent people. The aliens, on the other hand, are very well animated and elicit quite a bit of an emotional response, especially because the film focuses on a father and son who are simply trying to get home. Yet, the film ends on a strikingly romantic note between humans and the aliens get their pound of flesh (literally), as well. Thus, the film even fails to be cohesive on a thematic level.

It is hard to say what would have made "District 9" work. For the sake of cohesion, Blomkamp really should have committed to either a documentary format or a dramatic one. Yet, if he had gone with the former, effectively driving the story through a character's actions would have been nearly impossible ("Cloverfield" proved this) and, if he had done the latter, the film's best moments would never have come to be. Blomkamp, and his co-writer, Terri Tatchell, did not write a script that suited the type of film he wished to make. It results in a fractured film that is half brilliant and half decent, with each half being dragged down by the other.

What makes "District 9" so frustrating is not that it squanders an excellent premise, but that it is wildly successful, up until a certain point. Likewise, the action film that it transforms into is hardly bad, either; it is simply out of place. In short, "District 9" is two stilted films in one.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Evangelion: The Revolutionary TV Series Gets an Overhaul that Is (Not) Revolutionary

Before I review the new film, Mr. Hollis-Lima has prepared a short introduction to the TV series that spawned it:

Maybe you have heard of Eva, maybe you have not. One thing is for sure: You should see it. This low budget Japanese animated television series from the mid nineties may just be one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th Century.

I first heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion in middle school. A friend of mine excitedly narrated the particularly gory parts of the show to me over successive morning bus rides. Being the strangely responsible child that I was, I knew I should not dare to watch something that was so clearly intended for an older age bracket. What I did not know was that the show would still baffle and shock me when I first saw it years later, even continuing to have such an effect as I entered my adult life. Late in high school, I began purchasing the first expensive discs of the series without ever having seen an episode. After watching those first few episodes, I was lamenting the money I had so hastily spent. The show seemed dated, clichéd and strange – hardly the masterpiece I had expected. I pushed forward, however, determined to give the show a fair shot. Soon, the characters began to grow on me. Asuka was amusingly boisterous, but was becoming painfully tragic. Shinji was infuriatingly timid, but it somehow made him decidedly human. Gendo was cruel and cold, but I still died to know what drove him. By the time I first watched "The End of Evangelion," the series' theatrical conclusion, I knew that the show was anything but dated or clichéd.

Today, I have seen the entire series countless times. Writing about the show, however, has only become more difficult. Eva has an absolutely staggering amount of depth, going far beyond character development. Complex themes involving international politics, scientific ethics, social behavior, psychological theory and religious allusions are bursting from every frame of the series. I can think of few other works that even aspire to analyze humankind in all of its facets, much less any that have succeeded the way Eva did.

There is a reason that Eva does not have the respect it deserves – many, in fact. It begins as seemingly little more than a derivative action anime, enough to turn off anime fans and haters alike. Even film buffs, in their endless search for such esoteric gems, often quickly tire of the show's initial idiosyncrasies. Be assured that, by the time the show nears its conclusion, however, most viewers are left wondering how they ever failed to see the show's brilliance. I have no idea how this new film series is bound to measure up to the original 26 episodes and their film conclusion. Given how excessively merchandized the show is in Japan, it may very well fail to capture the brilliance of its originator. Mr. Keeley, however, addresses such questions in his review.

The new films aside, I beg anyone who puts even the slightest stock in my opinions to find a way to watch the original series and film in their entirety.

Now, my review of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone:

Most animes don't hold up terribly well fourteen years after their debut. Neon Genesis Evangelion, for all the show's budget issues, still manages to look pretty damn good in 2009. Though new generations of anime fans can watch the show with pleasure and without cringing, Evangelion did make a lot of money, so the fine people at Studio Gainax decided to redo the show as four feature films. Everything has been reanimated, scenes have been cut, shortened, lengthened, and inserted, and plot changes have been made. The first film, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone doesn't change the plot too much, nor does it revolutionize our understanding of Evangelion, but it looks so damn pretty that I can forgive it quite a few faults.

The greatest of Evangelion 1.0's faults is its pacing: The movie covers the first six episodes of the television series and the protagonists' fights with the first three "Angels" who attack Earth for reasons unknown. As the film is only ninety-seven minutes and the individual episodes came to about three hours total, quite a lot of exposition and worldbuilding had to be cut. I wouldn't want to watch this movie without some prior familiarity with Evangelion. As I've watched the series, I can both appreciate the changes to the plot and fill in some of the details of the plot that go unexplained. The Second Impact, the catastrophe that sets the stage for the story, gets about two lines of dialogue. I suppose some of You Are (Not) Alone's issues stem from its nature as an adaptation: having seventeen Angels made sense in the TV show, as each one could get its own episode or two. The first of these new films has too many Angels dancing on its ninety-seven-minute pinhead, and the film suffers from it. As much as I enjoy gigantic fights, I also enjoy character development; I hope the future films in the Rebuild are a trifle more concise with their Angelic foes. There is online speculation that later Angels will be changed to better fit their new theatrical format. I hope this is the case.

While the film's pacing has issues, I was impressed with some of the foreshadowing Gainax incorporated into the film; important characters and concepts that are introduced too late in the series show up in You Are (Not) Alone. Indeed, the film ends with the introduction of a character who, in the television, does not appear until the twenty-fourth episode. The battles with the Angels are quite brutal, especially when the wounded or dying foes gush "blood" over the battlefield. The show has moments as visceral, but not until near the end of its run. While some hypothetical fan might call the increased violence unnecessary, I think it helps add aesthetic dramatic unity to a story that has often seemed disjointed.

Though Evangelion 1.0 is a comparatively short film, it does a good job introducing us to the franchise's characters; in addition to giant robot combat, there are moments of humor and character development. Fans of Evangelion's humor will be glad to learn that Pen-Pen appears in the film, as does the "toothpick scene." I think the biggest complaint many viewers will have about Evangelion 1.0 has to do with its main character, Shinji Ikari, who can be extremely irritating. Shinji is supposed to be grating - he's a self-loathing, sometimes cowardly teenager with father issues - and audiences who want a more "can do" hero will be frustrated. I wouldn't significantly alter Shinji's character or his role in the script, but I can understand why some would.

The beginning of Eva 1.0 is almost identical to the opening of the TV show's first episode, but once we see the inside of NERV (Eva loves its acronyms) headquarters, we see where the new movie's budget went. The environments in You Are (Not) Alone are gorgeous; Tokyo 3 and the GeoFront both look far larger and more intimidating than they did back in 1995. The new backgrounds are far more convincing and detailed than their originals, and CGI use is never overwhelming. Though the animators have access to new tools, they still like doing many effects the old-fashioned way.

The "Angels" of Neon Genesis Evangelion were always surreal and memorable, but they were never quite so impressive in the TV show as they are in the new movie. The animators have mixed CGI and traditional animation for the Earth's enemies, and it works quite well. Though all three Angels that appear in the movie are well-done, the Sixth Angel (the third Shinji fights) steals the show. It initially appears as a giant diamond-like mirror that reflects the sky and the ground, but it can rearrange itself into a variety of geometric shapes. The Sixth Angel attacks with gigantic energy blasts; its tremendous attacks give the film's final battle an apocalyptic feel lacking in the corresponding episode of the TV show. I may think the Angels have too much screen time in this installment, but at least they are wonderful eye candy. The Evangelions have also been changed a little for the new movie series, though the two Evangelions that appear do closely resemble their television counterparts. Throughout the course of the movie, we get several hints about the Evas' true nature; the filmmakers don't play their cards close to their chests. In You Are (Not) Alone, however, the focus is more on the protagonists and on the surreal Angels than it is on the Evangelions that our "heroes" pilot.

I would have liked to have seen Evangelion 1.0 subtitled, but the dub is fairly good. While some characters, like Rei and Ritsuko, have new voice actors, the really talkative characters like Misato and Shinji have the same voices they did in the TV show's US dub. I was grateful, as the familiar voices made it that much easier to get back into the Evangelion story. The new voice actors are fine, and many of them sound very much like their predecessors. There's not too much "new dub dissonance."

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone is an enjoyable film, but it's only the first of four movies. It does an extremely good job setting up the characters and conflicts, but it's not always as exciting as one might wish. I expect that Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance will be better, as the second film introduces several characters vital to Evangelion, most importantly the lively and arrogant German-Japanese Eva pilot Asuka. See Eva 1.0 if you can find a theater showing it, but remember it's only the first part of the story.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Knowing Really Is Half the Battle

That is a bit more like it. By sheer odds, the evil alliance of Paramount and Hasbro had to land a summer spectacle somewhere in the ballpark this year. "G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" is a stupid movie, yes, but it gets the stupidity just right. The plot makes a shred of sense, the characters are not heinous stereotypes and the directing is coherent. (Michael Bay: Stop doodling boobies and pay attention.) Beyond that, it has all of the giddy fun most summer movies promise to provide, but rarely deliver. Best of all, you can take the kids and not have to worry about them learning what Megan Fox's cervix looks like!

"G. I. Joe" wastes no time telling you what kind of movie it is going to be. About five minutes in, a ridiculous shootout has our White Hero, played by a very lifelike mannequin called Channing Tatum, and his battalion getting attacked by high tech bad guys. He stops short amid the chaos and exclaims, "Ana!?" with all of the horror of a guy who has just run into his ex at a party. It makes sense, given that he has just run into his ex. (Sienna Miller. White Hero could have done worse.) From there, you know you can just sit back and enjoy this one. Secret military organization... Paris getting blown up... Arctic enemy base... threat of world destruction. It is all of the scraps left over from the James Bond franchise's recent reinvention, cobbled together into a script that knows better than to take it all seriously. Unlike "Transformers 2," it knows that you know better, too, and it wastes no time trying to lay on artificial complexity. There are good guys and there are bad guys. They fight. Done.

There are flashbacks. Thankfully, they are short and somewhat rare. They also play out like hilarious B-movies. They include a kung-fu master, a doomed army recruit and, of course, White Hero's lost love.

This movie has a pretty big cast, and most of it fares well. The role of Black Hero, for example, is handled quite charmingly by Marlon Wayans, transcending his archetypical role; he is the butt of jokes far more often than he should be, but far less often than one would expect. Rachel Nichols plays Wayans' love interest well, not bending over backwards to hide the fact that they are totally going to be together at the end of the film. Sienna Miller's Baroness, on the other hand, dances in circles around her love interest, but that is damning her with faint praise. I am still trying to wrap my head around the choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Cobra Commander. This is, to say the least, not typecasting. Although it is hard to judge under all of the makeup, he seemed to be successful at making the character menacing, albeit in a campy way. He even hisses out one of his lines.

Props must go to director, Stephen Sommers. His "Mummy" remake franchise was silly fun in the same vein but, for whatever reason, directors often have trouble keeping their heads out of their asses when it it comes to military action-melodrama. Any number of Michael Bay-esque pitfalls are avoided here. The characterizations are thin, but Sommers seems to have made sure the actors were having a good bit of fun with this one (so, you know, we can). The American president figures into the plot but good luck finding any American flag-waving here. The Joes are an international organization, so the film is never dragged down by any palpable xenophobia or jingoism. (Most of the Joes are white, though. The women all look like they just came back from the hairdressers', too.) While an Iraq flashback plays things gritty, the director, for the most part, knows to keep things slick and simple.

The special effects, in fact, may strike one as too simple. "Speed Racer" leapt to my mind at a few moments in this film. The special effects team made a clear choice not to pursue realism in this film. While it may seem incongruous at times, I think it ultimately suits the film. Making a submarine battle around an underwater fortress look real would have been a bit of a challenge, anyway.

That battle is part of a long climax sequence that features a number of decent action scenes. The film's best action sequence, however, is easily the street chase through Paris. Those CG mechanical suits that are so prominently featured in the trailers (and made me cringe every time I saw them) figure heavily into this sequence, making a good argument for their presence in the film. Cars are flung every which way (it is the thing to do these days) and the Heros of Both Shades have to dodge them, employing the suits' superhuman speed and agility. It is giddy fun to watch and the chaos never gets too heady. (They do, however, rack up a high civilian body count. Upon defeat, Baroness sneers, "You saved Paris... most of it, anyway." No kidding.) Sommers is not exactly at the cutting edge of action movie directing, but he does not step on himself. It is more than many directors can say.

Is this movie remotely ground-breaking? No, but when Michael Bay tries to brush off his critics by claiming that everything he does is in good fun, this is the sort of movie he believes he has made. It may not push the genre forward, but it does not do any harm, either. Even "Star Trek," an admittedly decent movie, felt like a sham, as it devoted most of its running time to setting up a sequel. There will be a "G. I. Joe" sequel, rest assured, but I will be seeing it because of the first movie, not despite it. This film knows its audience and seeks to do right by it, not exploit it. That is the least for which one can ask.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cable TV: Not Just Entertainment Anymore

I intended to refrain from writing on this issue. It is one characterized by such brazen condescension that I refused to believe that the average American was not already privy to it. More often than not this summer, however, I have found my trips to the movie theater beginning with an obnoxious reminder of just how naked the greed of American media companies has become. I am speaking about one of those longform commercials that precedes the trailers at AMC theaters (annoying in and of themselves, but not the point). The ad in question consists of the rocker, Andrew W.K. screaming about how Cartoon Network is now "more than just cartoons." It is a particularly blatant example of a bigger phenomenon that the internet has labeled "unbranding."

Anyone who has watched Cartoon Network in the past few years knew that this was coming. A few years back, executives at the network announced that they would be embracing a broader idea of what "cartoon" means. What did the word really mean in their minds? Things that are not cartoons, of course. The trickle was slow at first – the odd, live action movie here and there – but it was clear that, if this network was subject to the same forces that others are, it would not remain a trickle for long. The History Channel now proudly states that history is "Made Every Day," saving viewers the trouble of wondering how historical this week's "Ice Road Truckers" was. The SciFi Channel has now morphed into some illiterate, bastard spawn called SyFy, side-stepping their long-standing confusion of science fiction, fantasy and Nic Cage movies. One could argue that even the cable news networks play fast and loose with their titles, given how difficult it is to find news on them. (Anyone know what MSNBC stands for, anyway? Thought not.) Now, Cartoon Network is launching CN Real, a block of reality shows that includes programming such as "Destroy Build Destroy." No wonder they need a frenetic music video to justify it.

What does it all mean? In short, nothing – on purpose. When a channel called "Cartoon Network" proudly announces that cartoons are not enough for them anymore, it does not just render the name meaningless; it seems to make meaning the enemy of all things capitalist. It is why the term, "unbranding" is so apt. Traditionally, marketing is about creating a cohesive, unique idea of what a product is in the heads of consumers. The tactics that cable channels are now embracing across the board seem to fly directly in the face of traditional marketing. In fact, it borders on purposeful confusion. These days, the name of a channel is generally a surer indication of what one will not find on a cable channel, than what one will find.

Unless, of course, the channel lacks an identity altogether. If one was to peruse the cable Nielsen ratings on a weekly basis, a handful of channels would quickly emerge as consistent, unopposed successes: USA and TNT. Anyone would tell you that, if anything, these channels could be called "general entertainment." TNT? They "Know Drama," apparently, but they also seem to like airing "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." ... and USA says "Characters Welcome." Well, that rules out experimental cinema, I suppose. So, what is one to do when they own a cable channel with a woefully specific name, like "Cartoon Network?" Render the name meaningless. Then, it is only a matter of time before its scoring big with ad nauseam "Law & Order" reruns.

It is only natural to emulate something that works. Those fancy-pants ad men on Madison Avenue (ahem, you would think that, at least, the folks at AMC would know about them), however, seem to have their noses to the ground. With all of the cable channels rushing to the same well, it would not be long before it runs dry and Americans power up their cable boxes to find nothing more than an alphabet soup of bland, clone channels... and some porn. To me, it is apparent that such a time has already come.

Yet, even in a recession, most cable companies' subscriber rates have not dropped in any considerable amount, as Americans pay a rising average of $71 per month for the service.

Today's cable channels offer none of the benefits that they did in the 1970's, when the concept was introduced. Most channels quickly dropped their ad-free formats, despite the fact that we were paying to see them. Of course, with ads, comes censorship, the lack of which was another selling point for cable. Now, the final nail has been run in: The promise of niche programming, designed to appeal to one's personal tastes, not the national audiences of the broadcast networks, has been flouted. Today, cable subscribers are left with hundreds of broad-appeal, commercial-supported channels that are filled with repetitive schedules and low-quality programming.

Where are the benefits over broadcast television? Sure, there are more channels but is the gain really that large in a qualitative sense? "Unbranding" should make the answer to this clear. Anything cable has that is worth watching can be rented on DVD. (Hell, HBO is $13 per month. You could buy your favorite shows and probably break even.) Besides, the premium channels do not explain why most people pay about $50 every month for the trash heap that is basic cable. I suppose that sports are tough to find outside of cable, but licensing fees for regional sports channels are astronomicaljust ask your cable company. How much can you love a team that perpetrates such highway robbery? Most teams have a game or two on broadcast networks each week, anyway... in HD, no less.

Most Americans would benefit from stepping back and asking themselves if they only watch cable out of habit. The amount of cable programming that can be considered "appointment viewing" pales in comparison to the amount that people simply watch because it is there. Media companies are relying on that passivity more and more, as the quality of their product steadily declines, and what is there is being spread thinner every day.

When all is considered, there are few reasons to continue to shell out those exorbitant subscription fees. Even if your house does not have a rooftop antenna, it would only cost a month or two's worth of subscription money to fix that. It is a small sacrifice to make for a lifetime of free television. With the digital transition over, broadcast channels have multiplied and their picture quality is great (over-the-air HD is almost always better looking than cable's). Besides, an $852 per year habit is probably one worth kicking, under any circumstances.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Should Not Be So Excited: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Many of the worst videogames ever made have been licensed games based off popular movie, TV, or comics properties. For every licensed masterpiece like Goldeneye, there have been dozens of mediocre to awful games with big names on their covers. You would think that a James Bond or Superman game would be hard to mess up, but it has been done time and again. So I make it a rule to not get too excited about licensed games - they may turn out OK, but it's best not to get your hopes up.

I'm afraid the upcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum has made me break my own rule. True, there have been mediocre (Batman Begins) and awful (Batman: Dark Tomorrow) Batgames in the past. But Arkham Asylum has a new developer, and they really seem to understand what makes Batman work. Batman does tend to punch people, yes, but his appeal isn't based on the punching any more than 007's appeal is based off his shooting megalomaniacs and odd henchmen. What both Bond and Bats have is style - Bond always keeps his charm and his cool, while Batman darts through shadows and scares the hell out of his enemies. He's more a trickster figure than a brawler. Arkham Asylum emphasizes these points: the game takes place on the secluded island housing Arkham Asylum (The Joker has taken over), and it takes place at night. The Asylum itself is suitably gothic, dark, and forbidding. In theory at least, it's the perfect playground for the Batman.

I must admit, the first Arkham Asylum demo disappointed me. It was completely combat centric, and the only gadgets you had access to were Batarangs. The combat engine is quite good - it plays well, and Batman is as efficient and brutal as you might hope - but the best part of a Batman fight is often his dramatic entrance, and the original demo didn't let us make it. The new demo, thankfully, fixes this. Most of the demo consists of a rather guided introduction to combat and stealth, but it ends with Batman in a large, high, and catwalk-filled room facing six enemies; how you eliminate them is up to the player. Here's what I do: I sneak up one enemy and knock him unconscious. Then I grapple up to a gargoyle - grappling works extremely well, which is very important for a proper Bat-experience - then make my way around the room until I am standing on a gargoyle above another enemy. I hang down from the gargoyle, then fall down on top of him, pick him up, knock him out, and hang him by his feet from the gargoyle. After this, the remaining enemies are justifiably nervous and easy to pick off; it's great fun to glide down from the ceiling and kick an unfortunate thug in the back. Like any good stealth game, you have many different ways of going about your mission, many ways of making your opponents fear your wrath.

As much as I loved the new demo for Arkham Asylum, it does have some issues. For one, the titular asylum has way too many bat-sized ducts and convenient gargoyles than is plausible. It makes for fun, but not believability. Furthermore, the camera does take a bit of getting used to, as when you're not in combat, it will automatically stay extremely close to Batman. I suppose it's done for atmosphere, but it does feel a bit awkward.

Arkham Asylum's gameplay seems pretty great, but I was also struck by the high production values of the game. There are unlockable character trophies and profiles, some of which you can view in the demo. They're quite well-done and fairly in-depth; in the Joker's profile, for example, you can listen to an audio interview with him. Furthermore, developers Rocksteady made a very good decision in hiring Paul Dini to write the story for the game. Dini, along with Bruce Timm, was one of the two people most responsible for the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series. Arkham Asylum is much darker than that TV show, but Dini also has long experience writing Batman stories for adult audiences, as he's spent years writing for Detective Comics, one of the monthly Batman titles. Also returning from the TV show are Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Conroy does a far better Batman voice than Christian Bale, while Hamill is the best living Joker actor. Based off what little I've played, both do fantastic jobs.

Many people were surprised that there was no game adaptation of The Dark Knight. I must admit, I'm glad we're getting Arkham Asylum instead. As much as I love Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, his franchise doesn't yet have enough villains to support a game like this. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, features the Joker, the Scarecrow, Bane, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Szasz. I get the impression other villains appear, especially since there are "Riddler trophies" scattered all over the island. And while Arkham Asylum isn't based off a movie, it's plenty cinematic. When you clear a room of enemies, for example, Batman's finishing strike is shown in slow motion. Plus there is a lot of chatter going on in the background: the Joker uses Arkham's video and intercom systems to mock you; his insults are sometimes quite funny. Though Arkham's architecture is sometimes too videogame-y, it often feels like a real, albeit very sick, place.

After playing the first demo, I was a little worried about Arkham Asylum's prospects. After playing the second, I think I'm going to buy the game on day one. I just hope that the full game lives up to the promise shown in the demo. More to follow later this month when Arkham Asylum releases.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Funny People, Serious Problems

"Funny People" can safely be described as Judd Apatow's first drama. While it features many of the ingredients that made his previous films so successful, the mixture has been tweaked ever so slightly. One cannot blame him for trying. His unique mix of raunchy humor and winning earnestness has proven wildly successful, but it has also spawned countless emulations. Attempting to change the game once again is only a natural move. Unfortunately, "Funny People" feels like the work of an artist who has inched ever so slightly out of his comfort zone.

The film tells the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a middle-aged comedian who finds out that he is about to die. In a somewhat half-baked attempt to sort out his life before he goes, he hires an aspiring comedian (played by Seth Rogen, who looks like he is about fifty pounds lighter and, somehow, as a result, fifteen years younger) to be his personal assistant. The film wastes no time at the start, laying the bad news on the audience about two minutes after the opening credits roll. It sets the film down a strange path, wherein Simmons' death is a foregone conclusion, but it is ruminated on constantly.

The structure of the film remains strange to the end, with a considerable twist coming an hour and a half into the two and a half hour-long running time. This has the effect of leading the film away from its established setting and supporting characters. The studios seemed not to mind revealing this twist in trailers, to my bafflement. Without giving it away, I will say that the film's latter half involves Simmons' pursuit of a long-lost love interest. One could argue that the incongruity of this second half is only appropriate; Simmon's aspirations seem irrational and naive, and Apatow's script smartly treats them as such, while still allowing him to remain sympathetic. It also, however, sidelines all of the subplots involving Rogen's character who was, up until that point, as important to the plot as Sandler's. It leaves all of these plotlines to be hastily resolved after the film's climax and leads one to wonder just how important he ever was to the plot.

Thankfully, Apatow's ability to create extremely lovable, entertaining and complex characters does not suffer. Sandler plays a man who is burdened by how beloved he is, at once self-deprecating, sleazy, endearing and wry. It is a more honest and mature version of the losers he has played in his own productions for years. (The film even opens with real-life footage of a young Sandler. While this highlights the obvious parallels to Sandler's life, it also creates a strange effect, as if the film is memorializing the actor, not the character he is playing.) Rogen displays a bit of range here, too, as an atypically dorky, young character. Even Jonah Hill seems a bit more earnest in this film; he still plays an asshole, but he is more subdued this time.

Leslie Mann's character, on the other hand, seems to suffer from the film's inconsistencies. Her first prolonged scene has her character crying hysterically after admitting she still has feelings for Simmons. It does not play well, and the scene veers erratically between attempts at gravely serious emotion and delicately endearing comedy. Throughout the film, the fine line she is supposed to walk remains unclear. This is best illustrated when she resorts to caricature during a serious argument with her husband (Eric Bana). Nothing she says fails to be funny, but it is jarring, as the film struggles to decide how, exactly, it wishes to portray her frustration. Bana has no such burden, as he steals many of the later scenes, playing a boisterous Australian stereotype... although he is no exception to the fact that, with Apatow, no character remains one-dimensional for long.

With so many strong performances, it is clear that Apatow brings his strong handle on character development to directing, as well. Yet, the unique tone of this film exposes his weaknesses as a visual storyteller. There are moments in "Funny People" where sunlight falls through trees in some painfully overt uses of the pathetic fallacy. The camera will occasionally zoom slowly in on a teary-eyed face as well – something that plays like gooey melodrama anywhere outside of the 1960's. Scenes of children playing employ all of the tired sentimentality of a perfume commercial. (They happen to be Apatow's own kids. This film has a very strange relationship with the Fourth Wall; Apatow gives his real-life wife and children a lecherous husband/father and he eulogizes the very-much-alive Adam Sandler.) Moments such as these indicate that Apatow still needs to learn how to shoot straight drama. I do not doubt that he is capable of doing so, but he must learn to approach it with the same simplicity that he employs with comedy.

"Funny People" has numerous strong points. Unlike Apatow's past efforts, however, they fail to add up to something very cohesive. The drama is occasionally affected and the comedy even misses a beat or two, with a strange profusion of penis jokes (as in, almost all of the jokes are about penises... with the conspicuous exception of Sarah Silverman's cameo). I would never fault a filmmaker for trying something different, but it does not seem like Apatow quite has the chops for this sort of thing. What fundamentally sets this film apart from "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" is that these characters know that they are funny and, therefore, are aware of the irony that lies in their suffering. It is a weighty concept – one that proves a bit too weighty for this film. Nevertheless, there is not any false advertising here; these people are, indeed, funny.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Harry Potter" and the Infinite Audacity of Its Filmmakers

To put it bluntly, this movie should not be this good. Paramount, with its summer cash cows, has proven that you do not need to make a great movie to keep the fans of a franchise happy. Yet, Warner Brothers insists on churning out summer spectacles that are strikingly innovative and complex. One could even argue that "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," an absolutely impeccable production, exposes how the Potter films' producers have infused the franchise with more genuine emotion and atmosphere than it really demands.

The Harry Potter films have always suffered from a bit of the old movie-adaptation-of-a-book syndrome. Easily the worst offender, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" had a woefully malformed script, courtesy of Steve Kloves. The movie sought to ride on the whimsy of its premise for an entire two and a half hours, as it meandered from episode to episode, ultimately arriving at a lame final act. Director, Chris Columbus was also to blame. He, in recent years, seems to be specializing in bland, tedious film adaptations of beloved franchises. ("Rent," anyone?) Harry Potter got a bit better when the vastly superior Alfonso Cuarón took over the chair with the third installment. Yet, the story still felt limp and Cuarón's work offered only the faintest echoes of his true talent.

Not until the fourth film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," did this franchise become something worth taking seriously. With this film, writer Kloves finally found some semblance of dramatic structure within his source material. The result, despite some shaky performances, is one of the best Harry Potter films to date. The film benefitted significantly from the inherent structure that the Tri-Wizard Tournament provided, as well as the quickly rising stakes of the series' plot. The following installment continued on these strengths, despite marking Kloves' only absence from the series and the introduction of a fourth director, David Yates.

Now, with the latest film, Yates has solidified his role as the Harry Potter director. His work on the "The Half-Blood Prince" displays a versatility that allows him to develop J. K. Rowling's universe in all of its facets. He, for example, is the only director in the series who understands how to make wizard fight scenes worthwhile. His face-off between Harry and Malfoy is gritty and violent. He lingers on the ugly result, allowing its full impact on Harry to resonate. When there is an attack on the Weasley house, he uses the silence of the open fields surrounding it to its maximum dramatic effect.

Yet, action sequences are not this film's greatest strength. After the film's somber, emotional climax, Yates chooses to insert a silent shot of the empty Great Hall. It is a simple, but powerful summation of the profound damage that has been done.

This director has made an all-important realization: six films in, magic is no longer very magical. For Harry, every other wizard and even the moviegoer, most forms of magic have become commonplace. Yates is smart enough to treat them as such. Moments of whimsy are almost entirely absent from this film. The magic that is shown is violent, dark and disturbing – elements that are only revealing themselves to most of the characters now that Voldemort has returned. The magic is also, vitally, less abstract. Beams of light and puffs of smoke have been replaced with more tangible results like shattering glass and raging fire. The dangers of dark magic are becoming, in a word, real.

Professor Slughorn states, at one point, that "there can be no light without the dark." Yates fully grasps this, the film's prevailing theme. (The fact that there is a prevailing theme in this film shows how far Kloves' scripts have come.) More importantly, however, Yates understands the inverse of this maxim; "The Half-Blood Prince" never veers into the portentous, as it is often quite funny. Harry's misplaced sense of chivalry, as it appears when his crush approaches a dinner table, is presented with amusing, understated discomfort. Similarly, Ron's admirer digs her spoon into a table with hilariously rapt infatuation.

The fact that the cast never misses a beat certainly helps establish this dichotomy. Pointing out just how incredible Harry Potter's cast is has become cliched, but it bears repeating. Whoever is responsible for assembling it is responsible for an amazing feat of casting. To think that so many actors can do so well, so consistently over almost a decade, while half of them are going through puberty is downright mind boggling. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into quite the actor, as Harry continues to shed his meekness. Emma Watson has coiled Hermione into quite the little ball of tension. Alan Rickman remains undeniably brilliant, filling Professor Snape with as much droll hatred as ever. Even Tom Felton has come into his own, creating a deeply troubled Malfoy who displays all the self-imposed alienation of a school shooter.

The film's tone, however, is largely defined by the excellent cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. From the bleak, high-contrast look of the subway station early in the film to the moonlit chiaroscuro of the climax, this film is rife with potent visuals that elevate it far beyond anything the series has seen thus far. Delbonnel's work stays true to what came before it, but lends newfound volume to these familiar settings. Dumbledore's study is still awash in warm candlelight early in the film but, at the end, it is lit only by pale, grey sunlight. Even the hallways of Hogwarts display astonishing visual range, intimately lit by red lanterns for a party midway through the film, but later, so cold and dark that students seem to be disappearing into the stone walls.

The beauty of the film's climax can hardly be overstated. Without Delbonnel's eye, the painful loss that these final moments portray would not have been nearly as powerful. The film's themes are imbued with such a profound level of sophistication through his photography that it transcends every other aspect of the film.

In fact, dare I say that it is too good? As I have already mentioned, these films are often burdened by their insistence on remaining extremely faithful to J. K. Rowling's novels. On one hand, this has blessed the films with an uncommonly detailed fantasy world. On the other, it seems to have forced a fundamental simplicity onto them.

As I admire the significant quality of this film's production, I cannot help but wonder what it all means. Harry Potter, as it happens, can always be boiled down to a simple, good versus evil story; what constitutes good magic and bad magic is never really challenged or complicated. Potentially fascinating areas are largely ignored, such as the wizards' relationship with the muggle world. Social relevance, symbolism and truly complex themes seem to be non-existent. It all lacks genuine meaning.

To be fair, I have not read any of the books recently. These deficiencies, however, seem so fundamental to the Harry Potter world that I cannot believe that they only came about in translation. This may seem like a serious criticism for a film I have praised so highly, but it is the film's very quality that exposes these flaws. This story is executed with such profound talent and devotion that it compels one to think deeply about it all. Sadly, Harry Potter does not seem to hold up to penetrating thought. It is, in all its complexity, still a mere kids' story.

The fact that I needed to realize such a thing after watching "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is, ultimately, a testament to how great of a film it is. It takes a story that does not require sophistication and craft, and gives it just that. I sincerely hope that, in its final chapters, the quality of the film saga's ideas can measure up to the quality of its execution. Yet, if it fails to do so, I will not be terribly disappointed. The later Harry Potter films have truly been something to behold, with a vibrant world and wonderfully drawn characters; these films are already far better than one could have expected.