Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”: A Movie Review

Last week, Tim Burton’s newest film Dark Shadows was released and opened to a modest $30 million domestic at the box office. But it is Burton after all, and the perfect opportunity to welcome another guest post by William Buhagiar, a connoisseur on all things Burton. Of course, William went to see it the first chance he got. Here’s his very favorable review:

When I first reached the age in which I was capable of reading the opening credits of the films I loved, I noticed a recurring component in a significant handful of the movies I watched obsessively: each one, prior to the revealing of the film’s title, featured the words: “A Film by Tim Burton.” My six (or maybe seven?) year-old curiosity inspired me to wonder who this guy was and why his name seemed to pop up in the majority of the movies I would play, rewind and play again. I’ve always been a passionate film buff, and as long as I have been, I’ve been a wildly outspoken, consummate Tim Burton fan: obsessively, repeatedly, studiously seeing his films, defending his work to infuriatingly-cynical skeptics, spending all but my limbs on ludicrous amounts of Burton-related merchandise and movie tickets – but also, much to everyone’s great shock, admitting that occasionally, Tim Burton doesn’t always make a great film. Despite the fact that he is undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker, I’m not delusional – he is not perfect, nor is he the best.

Mars Attacks! (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001) are prime examples of Burton features that woefully missed the mark. His 2010 adaptation/re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland was also a brutal, sobering deflation of my arguably unreachable expectations; a breathtaking movie to look at, but ultimately a flavorless, generic Disney casualty that felt less like a movie and more like a product.  To prevent myself from experiencing the same bitter disappointment Alice in Wonderland slapped me across the face with, I put as much effort as possible into limiting my expectations for Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the 1960’s-70’s gothic afternoon soap opera chock full of vampires, witches, werewolves and poltergeists – a show that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were devoted fans of during its original 5-year run on ABC. Admittedly, I was rather anxious about Dark Shadows, (Burton and Depp’s now 8th collaboration) and much of my apprehension came from concern that the supernatural vampire genre has been exhausted in pop culture recently, and the source material was, to put it as kindly as possible, a tad ridiculous. I was terrified of another disappointment.

Alas, I can say with a blessed elation, when the end credits began to roll after Dark Shadows, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Any and all previous cynicism vanished, and I found the movie to be enormously entertaining, and an instant classic, featuring everything I seek in Burton/Depp collaborations. Many non-believers mistake their excessive collaborations for overblown repetition, an argument that frankly, I’ll never understand. Sure, I’ll admit that their films are often bizarre, dark in tone, and feature a lonely, isolated and eccentric protagonist. However, if you properly examine each of the individual characters and stories they’ve created for two decades now, they’re all wildly original and unique.

Dark Shadows opens with a wonderful prologue narrated by Barnabas Collins, whose parents brought him from Liverpool to America in 1760 and established a fishing business in Maine and built their home, Collinwood Manor. (The production design is superb and all of the set pieces are magnificent.) When Barnabas breaks the heart of the Collins family servant, the witch Angelique, she places a curse upon the family and turns Barnabas into a vampire and with the help of an angry, god-fearing mob, buries him alive.

Two-hundred years later, in 1972, Barnabas is freed from his tomb by a construction crew and violently drains each of them, courteously taking a moment to apologize to one of them: “I am terribly sorry, but you cannot imagine how thirsty I am…” The following sequence is hilarious – Barnabas wanders about the town of Collinsport, Maine in a state of intense confusion, trying to make sense of gas stations, pay-phones, cars and paved roads, among many other puzzling fixtures of the 70’s. When Barnabas returns to Collinwood, he finds his beloved mansion in a state of disrepair and the family business run into the ground. The mansion is now home to his distant descendants: Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, (The stunning Michelle Pfeiffer, reuniting with Burton for the first time since their genius creation of the greatest Catwoman portrayal ever), Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Chloe-Grace Moretz), her brother, Roger, (Johnny Lee Miller) and his son, David (Gulliver McGrath).  It wouldn’t be a complete Burton movie without the always-glorious presence of the goddess that is Helena Bonham Carter, playing Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, a pill-popping alcoholic.

The real stand-out performance here is Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas and is now running her own seafood business in Collinsport, consequently responsible for the collapse of the Collins family business. She is an extremely compelling villain and her performance is explosive and her motivation intriguing – she chillingly purrs to Barnabas, “If I can’t have you, I’ll destroy you.” There is real menace and fury in her eyes, and we, the audience, believe every furious word.

Burton recruited Bruno Delbonnel as cinematographer, whose previous work includes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a stunningly-photographed film for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination. In Dark Shadows, Burton and Delbonnel aimed to shoot the film in a style reminiscent of 1970’s films (horror films, specifically) for the sake of authenticity and atmosphere. Delbonnel’s work here is equally as stunning as in “Harry Potter,” and the cinematography will most likely earn him another Oscar nomination. I’m never surprised whenever a Tim Burton movie is visually pleasing (they always are), but the achievement in photography here is particularly impressive – especially when taking into consideration the accomplishment of the 70’s feeling.

Dark Shadows has moments of wild, over-the-top camp and many of the dialogue-driven scenes are over-acted to perfection. If the film wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, self-aware or took itself seriously, the camp and the soap opera tone would ultimately render the movie a failure. The film isn’t meant to do anything but provide entertainment, and it truly is a piece of good old blockbuster escapism; and I was delighted during the film to perceive it as precisely what I seek in Tim Burton’s films: you will never see another movie like this anywhere else. His greatest movies are always the most unique – Frankenstein-like men with scissors for hands, a barber singing beautiful melodies while viciously slitting open his customer’s throats, an eccentric, cross-dressing filmmaker, and now, an out-of-place 18th century vampire struggling to re-adjust to his new surroundings. Burton and Depp’s critics can say whatever they like, because regardless of their excessive cynicism, after twenty-two years of collaborating, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp continue to inspire.    — William Buhagiar

William’s Rating:

The Hunger Games – “a beautiful rarity in cinema”

Well, better late than never, right? As of this post, this film has already grossed over $460 million worldwide. Shockingly enough, I have yet to see it. I will make sure to do so in the next week or two. I can’t see these huge blockbusters in the first week or two…the crowds are too ridiculous for me and I prefer a quieter theater atmosphere. But enough about my own idiosyncrasies — our guest columnist William Buhagiar (see his past posts on the Harry Potter series) made sure to see it and was kind enough to submit his personal commentary. Here it is:

When it comes to the precarious topic of book-to-film adaptations, the opinions amongst fans of the source material are essentially unanimous: the book is always substantially better. When it comes to The Hunger Games, a shockingly violent, disturbing trilogy of books geared towards young adults, none of the fans (including myself) anticipated the first cinematic installment of Suzanne Collins wildly popular series to parallel the quality of the source material.

Shockingly enough, director Gary Ross has masterfully crafted a film that not only does the novel an extraordinary degree of justice, but has (arguably) improved upon the book. Directly prior to the dimming of the lights in the theater, I was apprehensive that perhaps my expectations were too high and my feelings toward the film would be lukewarm at best. But mercifully, I found the movie to be not only satisfying, but equally as suspenseful, riveting, intense and moving as the novel.

The Hunger Games is set during an unspecified time in a dystopian future – North America has been nearly annihilated by an implied nuclear war and is now the nation of Panem, a country comprised of twelve impoverished “districts” and a wealthy, lavish metropolis city simply referred to as “The Capitol.” The government is a totalitarian regime under the control of the cruel dictator President Snow, (a brilliant Donald Sutherland) and each of the twelve outlying districts are essentially servants of the Capitol, and labor tirelessly to provide the city with various resources – and District 12, the primary focus of the story, is a grim, poverty-stricken colony of starving coal miners. Established as both a punishment for a past rebellion against their government and a reminder of the absolute control the Capitol holds over the districts, Panem stages an annual event: The Hunger Games.

Once a year, each of the twelve district’s children between the ages of twelve and eighteen attend the Reaping, a ceremony during which two teenagers are selected by lottery to compete in the Games – a nightmarish fight to the death staged in an outdoor arena that is televised across the country and is mandatory viewing for each of Panem’s citizens. To the subjugated districts, it’s a terrifying reminder of the government’s power – to the Capitol, it’s the final word in entertainment.

When Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is announced as District 12’s female “tribute” during the Reaping, Katniss desperately volunteers to take her place in one of the film’s most heart-wrenchingly moving scenes. Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, are sent to the Capitol to be stylized, interviewed, and showcased for the sake of introducing Panem to this year’s competitors and to gain sponsors: wealthy citizens of the Capitol who could assist them during the Games by sending food, weapons or medicine that could ultimately decide their fate in the arena.

One of the film’s finest achievements is in the establishment of the futuristic country of Panem: the early scenes introduce the audience to the dismal, depressing squalor of District 12 and skillfully showcases the poverty and hunger that plagues it. Katniss, at sixteen years-old, is responsible for providing food for her mother and sister by hunting illegally in the woods surrounding her home. When Katniss arrives in the Capitol, the environment couldn’t be any more dramatically contrasted – the excess, outrageous fashion and ignorance of the Capitol citizens is palpable.

The brilliant talent that is Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar nominated for the indie flick Winter’s Bone) beat out several other actresses for the role of Katniss Everdeen, and rightfully so. Lawrence’s performance as the film’s bad-ass heroine is nothing short of extraordinary, and she carries the two-and-a-half hour feature masterfully, bringing to her character both the aggressive ferocity of a consummate survivor and the delicate vulnerability of a young woman thrust into overwhelming circumstances to spare the life of her beloved sister. She has a keen ability to make the audience experience her terror, desperation and grief just as she does throughout the film.

The supporting actors certainly deserve acknowledgement, as well. Josh Hutcherson, whose most notable role prior to The Hunger Games was in The Kids Are All Right,  plays Peeta Mellark: District 12’s charming, good-natured male tribute that harbors romantic affection towards Katniss. I found Hutcherson’s performance to be pleasantly surprising – his character could easily have been bland and forgettable, but mercifully this character became endearing and very enjoyable to watch. Woody Harrelson is Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor and the only living District 12 tribute who has survived a past Hunger Games. His performance is certainly satisfactory, and though the treatment for his character came across as slightly watered-down, the pros regarding Haymitch undoubtedly outweighed the cons. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie Trinket, the irritatingly sprightly Capitol citizen assigned to escort Katniss and Peeta through their pre-Games interviews and training. Banks, in outrageous clothing, wigs and make-up, (typical fashion for the Capitol residents) provides well-needed levity beautifully. Her moments of comic relief were a necessary (albeit brief) departure from the often overwhelmingly grim atmosphere of the movie. Lenny Kravitz, an unexpected choice, plays Katniss’s compassionate stylist, Cinna, whose performance isn’t necessarily inadequate; but with very little screen time, it is ultimately the most forgettable. Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci, is absolutely perfect as the oily, eccentric commentator of the Games.

Much of my apprehension regarding the film was the PG-13 rating, which inevitably indicated a substantial sacrifice in adapting the source material. Collins’ novel was brutally merciless in its portrayal of child-on-child violence and the descriptions of slaughter are truly shocking. Naturally, I doubted that the film would be able to properly convey the degree of intensity I felt during passages of the book. However, yet another of the film’s finest accomplishments was avoiding any explicit bloodshed with astoundingly clever editing and cinematography yet managing to establish just how horrific the Hunger Games are. None of the violence is ever glorified or gratuitous, and though the gore is significantly toned-down to avoid the R-rating, the suspense, intensity and terror are all there, which essentially renders the carnage unnecessary.

What I found to be the most incredible aspect of the adaptation is the level of quality the filmmakers have achieved. Blockbuster action films, more often than not, are mediocre at best – writing and acting are constantly secondary priorities whilst box-office earnings are ultimately a studio’s main concern. In the case of this film, however, Gary Ross’s pursuit was not towards earning as much money in ticket sales as possible, but simply making the finest film he could. The Hunger Games is a beautiful rarity in cinema: a large-scale, big-budget popcorn movie that delivers not just violence and explosions, but an expertly-paced, terrifically entertaining story that is beyond satisfying. I and the millions of other fans of the trilogy will now be forced to patiently wait for the sequel, Catching Fire, which has been given a perfect set-up at the conclusion of The Hunger Games. I was desperately hopeful that Gary Ross would return to direct the remaining two films – in my personal opinion, franchises should always stick with one director for the sake of atmospheric consistency, and his work on the first film is superb. Unfortunately, Lions Gate has officially announced that they have just begun a hunt for a new director. I can only hope their choice is respectable, and their new candidate is prepared to fill some very big shoes.

Forget “Glee”: This Movie Shows the Real Deal!

I do not watch the television show Glee and I thank my lucky stars for that. I once had the misfortune of watching an episode (sorry, Tara) and remember trying to comprehend the reason for its enormous popularity. As a theater teacher and director, it all seemed so phony and so exaggerated to me. I couldn’t help but feel insulted as a viewer. From my experience, this was not a genuine reflection of the arts and musical theatre in the high school arena.

I’ve had many jobs in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that being a high school English and theater teacher was the most challenging job I ever had. But even with the many difficulties, obstacles, and hardships that I encountered directing the school’s theatrical productions each year, it was also the most rewarding work experience I have ever had – by far. Whether it was for the school’s annual musical or a scene worked on in drama class, the level of talent these kids displayed never ceased to amaze and confound me. The experience also proved to me that, when given the opportunity, kids of any age, from any background, can accomplish nearly anything. So many of my former students – several of whom I still keep in contact with and am forever grateful for knowing — inspired me to work harder to make our productions look as professional as possible. The experiences are cemented in my memory and I will take with me wherever I go – all because of the remarkable students I had.

So why am I sharing this personal information here on my film blog? Well, I recently watched the documentary Most Valuable Players directed by Matthew D. Kallis – and I must say, as a person who works in theatre and has taught HS drama, that I was moved and inspired by this rousing little film. The movie follows three (of the competing 27) high school theatre troupes in Lehigh Valley, PA on their way to the annual Freddy Awards, which are treated like the Tony Awards of high school musicals in the area. Like many areas across the country, Lehigh Valley is a sports-driven community – so much money, press, and attention is spent on athletics. This is a great thing. However, many school districts in our country have had severe budget cuts to their performing arts departments – some schools wiping the arts off the map completely. This is not a great thing and in fact, quite sad as the performing arts can provide so much to our youth, as illustrated in Kallis’ film.

I was amazed at the tremendous enthusiasm throughout the community surrounding the Freddy Awards – and not just from the students participating. The nominations are announced live on local television – and the ceremony itself is televised live and broadcast to millions of local homes. And just look at how packed that theatre gets for this annual event! The ceremony is held at the historic State Theatre in Easton, PA and is the brainchild of former PBS producer Shelley Brown. Shelley is in much of the documentary and her level of commitment to the arts, the Freddy’s, the students, and the community is beyond reproach. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but wish I was still directing high school students in wonderful musicals and plays – for no other reason than seeing the joy in all of their faces and the level of commitment made by faculty and students alike.

Most Valuable Players may not be the most important documentary made this year – but it does serve as a wake-up call concerning arts education in America. It shows us why the performing arts must remain in our schools and offered to young people who want to take part. Sure, the Freddy Awards provide these students with added incentive to push even harder (and the competitive nature of the ceremony is touched upon) – but really, you can clearly see just how dedicated they would be without them. As for the theatre instructors, their allegiance to their kids and exemplary work ethic is a wonder to watch. I only wish that every school district took part in something very much like this – it would make a significant difference in the lives of so many.

And the Good News: You don’t have to wait for Most Valuable Players to play at an art-house theater near you — or come out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The film was picked up by Oprah’s Winfrey’s channel (OWN) — and you can watch it Thursday, September 8th at 9:00pm EST. If you are a theatre-lover, an educator, a student, or (heaven forbid) actually watch Glee — this movie is a must-see!


“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”: Movie Review

The long wait is over. Harry Potter fans can now rejoice with the long-anticipated release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 today and in theaters everywhere (though I’m sure many already went to the midnight screening last night). The film, directed by David Yates,  follows our infamous trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron in their quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort and is slated to be the final installment in the mega-franchise. But — is it worth the wait? The hype? The hoopla? Does this last film live up to all of the lofty expectations and do justice to J.K. Rowling‘s book? Well, lucky for us, The Lantern has Potter extraordinaire William Buhagiar to give us the scoop and tell us what we might be in store for. Mr. Buhagiar does possess a Ph.D in Rowling Studies from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry and is an all-around film nerd. Here is his film review. — P.E.

It is arguably very melodramatic to begin this review by examining the brutal reality that nothing, not even anything as exquisite as the Harry Potter series, lasts forever. For the past twelve (out of twenty years of my life), I’ve always had a Harry Potter-something to look forward to, a reason to assemble amongst fellow nerds in bookstores and movie theaters in the middle of the night, waiting to resume by page or screen the epic tale of the Boy Who Lived. Now, after over a decade, I’ve stepped off the Hogwarts Express for good. Is it fair or is it absurd to view this as the most prominent rite of passage I have yet experienced? Outrageous as it may seem, never before have I felt so distant from childhood. My childhood was Harry Potter, and Harry Potter is now over. It is absolutely the most exhausted I’ve ever felt.

Deathly Hallows: Part II doesn’t ease the audience into the narrative – if you haven’t seen Part I, the film makes it very clear that you do not belong here. The Order of the Phoenix is at its weakest, Harry has just buried the heroic house-elf Dobby, and the despicable Dark Lord Voldemort has violated Albus Dumbledore’s tomb to steal the Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows and the most powerful magical instrument ever created…and so it begins.

Within minutes, the trio (each of whom reach their acting peak — they’re all superb) are raiding Gringott’s Wizarding Bank, flying over London atop a monstrous dragon, and quickly realize the shit has hit the fan when Voldemort discovers their secret mission to undo him – this, among other things, ultimately leads back to Hogwart’s, where the good guys will make their final stand against the bad guys. The Battle of Hogwarts, which should’ve been an insanely climactic cinematic spectacle, was generally a brief, disappointing series of flashes of magical combat. The handful of notable deaths we found devastating in the book are examined all-too-briefly here, and the novel’s profound examination of the consequences of war, the need to keep fighting and the triumph of good over evil feel tossed aside at times.

However, the film achieves something of a phenomenon in one of the series’ central characters, Professor Severus Snape, whose storyline ultimately lifts the quality of the movie tenfold and who becomes the primary focus of the film for a good stretch of about seven minutes. This was not only the finest chapter of the book series, but will ultimately go down as the finest sequence in the adaptations. There are many movies I will discuss and casually claim I have cried during (when in fact I just found them sad), but I promise I do not even mildly exaggerate when I say that I was sobbing, harder than I ever have before in a movie, during the scenes that properly explain the complicated, brilliant and ultimately tragic character that is Professor Severus Snape. Alan Rickman, who for eight films showed us a cold, sneering Potions Master with a disposition for sadism, annihilates the image he’s so artfully sustained for the past decade and brings something new to him – his vulnerability, desperation and grief stirred me into a frenzy and I couldn’t help but openly sob during Snape’s finest hour. God bless Alan Rickman.

I’ve always had a rocky relationship with the Harry Potter films; this is no secret; some I’ve come to appreciate and some I’ve come to absolutely despise. In the case of Deathly Hallows: Part II, my initial response is generally mixed. Something felt anti-climactic; many important events overlooked, but when the film got it right, it was nearly perfect. We can’t expect the films to be anything quite as extraordinary as the novels, I suppose, and they must always be viewed as separate entities. What I will always remember fondly will be the books, and the films will always be there to provide some quick entertainment. There will be no more Harry Potter releases, all is said and done, and there will be no more speculation over it. Despite my many grievances, it’s been fun watching J.K. Rowling’s world translated to the big screen, though sometimes infuriating for ten years. Mischief managed.

William’s Rating

Some Mixed Thoughts on “Midnight in Paris”

While, this is not technically a film review, I did want to vent a bit on Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, which is getting raves from critics and the public alike. This is great news, as Mr. Allen has been somewhat off his game for a few years and, as a tremendous fan of his work, I could not be happier. Hell, just look at the graphic I use as my avatar on this site! The movie also looks like it will easily eclipse Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) as his greatest domestic box-office success. This is also good news because I don’t think nearly enough people give his films a chance. Well, the modern-day fairy tale Midnight in Paris has been out for a while now, so I am a little late to the game…but after seeing it a couple of weeks ago, I felt I had to — as an objective admirer of his artistry — jot down some of my very profound thoughts. 🙂

First, the good. Anyone familiar with Allen’s canon of work knows that he’s been tapping the well pretty dry as of late. Same themes and the same characters in pretty unoriginal and disappointing films. With Midnight in Paris, Allen brings to the screen his most imaginative and creative movie since The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). That’s saying something and was very refreshing to finally see. It’s also been a bit challenging to find a suitable Woody archetype to play the lead roles. John Cusack did it very well. Here, Owen Wilson does a wonderful job as Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is struggling to finish his first novel. He is affable, charming, witty, and romantic.

Woody usually gets great performances from his all-star ensembles, and this film is no different. Adrien Brody is magnificent in the one scene he is in, playing Salvador Dali. He is hysterical and nearly steals the show. The lovely Marion Cotillard is also a wonder to watch as Pablo Picasso’s mistress. Michael Sheen is perfectly cast as the pseudo-intellectual who knows much less about art and culture than he’d like to think. You dislike him just the right amount. Kathy Bates (as Gertrude Stein), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway), Allison Pill (as Zelda Fitzgerald) also stand out and deliver some fun and believable performances as their 1920’s icons.

It was a lot of fun keeping your eyes out, waiting to see which famous character we would be introduced to next. Picasso, Gauguin, Degas, Bunuel, Eliot, Fitzgerald? They’re all here and having a ball. The costume design and art direction provide a genuine look and feel of Paris in the 20’s, which is no surprise as Allen’s period pieces always do an admirable job of this.

And now for the not so good. Rachel McAdams is too bitchy and too dislikable as Gil’s fiancee. Her mother too. You just can’t stand them, which I know is the idea — but it is laid on too thick, giving the characters little dimension. My biggest flaw with the film was that for a movie with such a remarkable premise to it…so magical and so fantastic…it doesn’t go nearly as far as it should. Other than introducing a number of famous cultural icons to us, very little is done with them. Subplots arise with little follow-through. And the ending itself is far too abrupt. It just…ends. You are left wanting more — and not in a good way. Rather, you’re left (at least I was) feeling somewhat let down. I felt that this time, Woody was almost there…he had a great idea, a solid script, strong performances, lovely design and locations…and just didn’t take it all the way home.

So all in all — a cute, fun, highly imaginative film that unfortunately could have gone much further and ranked among Woody’s best. I have read all of the hoopla declaring that “Woody’s back!” and that Midnight in Paris ranks among his greatest films ever. I think, after so many stinkers during the past decade, that the bar has been set a bit low, so the hype here is overdone. It’s a very good movie — and I surely recommend people to go see it — but in my opinion, doesn’t go into his Top 10.

My Rating:

‘Harry Potter Retrospective’ (Part 5): A Look at “Deathly Hallows”

This is the last mini-review in the ‘Harry Potter Retrospective,’ as contributing author William Buhagiar takes a personal & discerning look at last year’s Deathly Hallows: Part I. Of course the final installment of the mega-franchise is set to release in a few weeks (July 15th) – a bittersweet event for fans of the books and films, I am sure. I would bet my rent money that Mr. Buhagiar will be there to see it at the scheduled midnight screening — or any time on its first day of release — and he’s graciously committed to writing a full review for Magic Lantern that very weekend. In reading his very positive commentary on Part I, I can only hope that he is not severely let down with Part II as I fear that a squad of firemen may have to spend a few hours trying to talk him off a 10-story ledge. This special Retrospective will wrap up with Buhagiar’s astute analysis on many of the actors who have appeared in the Harry Potter films. A special “Thank You” to him for dedicating himself and writing such a thorough Series. Kudos to you William!!! — P.E.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Director:                 David Yates
Writer:                     Steve Kloves
Released:              2010
I Saw It:                   Four Times
William’s Rating:  

I cannot stress enough how anxious I was entering the IMAX theater at midnight to see this film. Never before had I been as tense about a movie, silently hoping with the desperation of a true nerd that once the lights came up at the end, I would not be tempted to blow up the theater. Deathly Hallows: Part I is undoubtedly my favorite of the books, and I don’t believe I would have been able to tolerate a treatment of the material that did not do it justice.

When the film ended and the credits began to roll, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Of course, it is not the book, but it is by far the finest of the films yet. Audiences unfamiliar with the original material were also satisfied – the only complaint I have yet to hear is that, at times, the film is a bit slow. (This is not at all an issue with readers; of course, we eat up every miniscule detail they include.)

Very few events are cut, and those that did not make it into the film are essentially trivial, not nearly as vital to the story’s progression. This, the seventh installment, finally embraced the tone of the books properly; the film is very dark and violent, with a constant sense of danger and fear throughout. As this is the first of the movies that does not take place at Hogwarts, the three principles are (for the most part) alone, and the supporting adult characters have very little screen time. I believe that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint give their finest performances yet in this installment, and they did an admirable job of carrying the movie.

One scene in the film did infuriate me, however, and I’m sure if you’ve seen the film and read the book you know precisely what I’m referring to. There is a moment when Harry and Hermione are alone in the tent. The atmosphere is grim and Hermione is listening to a radio, looking morose. Harry, in an attempt to cheer her up, silently invites her to dance – and they very revoltingly do just that. I’m willing to overlook this, as this was the only maddening part of the film.

The Tale of the Three Brothers,” a sequence which I believed would be extremely difficult to adapt and explains the legend of the Deathly Hallows, was so ingeniously staged that I must admit, was even better than what I had envisioned in my head during the reading of the book, using a unique blend of computer animation and shadow puppetry. The destruction of the locket in the Forest of Dean, following the appearance of the mysterious silver doe, was another masterfully staged scene that far surpassed my expectations.

As in the book, the events that take place in Deathly Hallows: Part I are the most intense and severe. The film opens with a statement by Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (played by Bill Nighy): “These are dark times…” The Dursleys pack up and leave Privet Drive to go into hiding, Hermione “obliviates” her parents to protect them from the Death Eaters, performing a spell that makes them forget their daughter and leave the country – and the tearful Hermione watches sadly as she disappears from the photographs on the walls. After this brief opening montage, we arrive at the home of the Malfoys, which Lord Voldemort has decided to use as his headquarters. He sits at the head of a long, ornate table, and is holding a meeting with his Death Eaters, and the scene explores the situation of the war: the Dark Lord has infiltrated the Ministry, he is getting stronger by the minute, but there is one last barrier he has yet to overcome: Harry Potter is still alive, and Voldemort himself must be the one to kill him. Throughout the scene, a bruised, bloody and tortured woman is suspended above the table; a Hogwarts professor passionately teaches students that Muggle-borns, witches and wizards with no magical relatives, are equal to “pure-bloods.” Lord Voldemort, obsessed with blood purity, begins his reign of terror (essentially genocide) in eliminating any witch or wizard born to Muggles. This very disturbing scene ends with the Dark Lord murdering the professor, and feeding her to his snake, ultimately setting the stage for the rest of the film.

Like the book, the film is suspenseful, dark and even harrowing at times. The heroes are truly pushed to the limit as the circumstances in the war against Voldemort reach astonishingly desperate levels. Nowhere is safe for Harry, Ron and Hermione, there is a Death Eater attack around every corner, and the body count far surpasses any of the previous entries. Voldemort is no longer featured solely in the climax, giving Ralph Fiennes a generous amount of screen time, and he appears much more often, sans-nose, than he has before. Helena Bonham-Carter boldly leaves her mark on the audience and provides a very different side to Bellatrix Lestrange than what we had seen in the previous films (in “Order of the Phoenix and “Half-Blood Prince,” despite being murderous and destructive, her insanity was entertaining in a more harmless, almost laughably crazy way). In Deathly Hallows: Part I, however, the diabolical witch’s sadism is brutal, disturbing and chillingly cruel – especially during a scene towards the climax, which she targets Hermione and mercilessly tortures her, and carves the unforgivable prejudiced term for Muggle-borns, “Mudblood,” into her skin.

As the film comes to an end, and we mourn the death of a beloved, heroic character, not only are we grieving for the tragedy, but also for the fact that we must patiently wait for the subsequent chapter of the story. After my first viewing of the movie in November, Part II was a frustratingly-tedious eight months away, and now it is less than one. As much as I cannot wait to see the final showdown between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, and watch the phenomenally gargantuan, epic battle between good and evil that will ensue (though I am bound to shed a few tears, as we lose so many beloved characters here), there is also the inevitable consequence of the series coming to a close that I’ll have to face. I sincerely hope that Part II is as satisfying as this film was, but considering the major events that are to take place towards the climax, I have my doubts, and fear that these scenes, some of which are my favorite of the entire series, will be radically under whelming. Hey, you never know, maybe my current cynicism will all be in vain, and Part II will pleasantly surprise me. I will simply expect the worst, but hope for the best.

Here’s a trailer for Deathly Hallows: Part II

Film Review: Louder Than A Bomb

With the recent “wake-up call”-style documentaries showing us all that is wrong with America’s schools, it is refreshing to see one showing us what is indeed right – even if it is just an itsy-bitsy piece of the puzzle in what is the grand scheme of our educational system. Louder Than A Bomb, produced and directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (yes, Gene’s nephew), gets its title from the youth poetry slam competition held in Chicago since its inception in 2001.  With over 60 local schools competing, it is the world’s largest of its kind. In this inspiring and affecting film, Jacobs and Siskel focus on four schools and a handful of student slam-poets as they make their way to February’s heated competition.

In selecting the schools and students they would follow, Jacobs and Siskel chose very well, with much of the focus spent on the team from South Side’s Steinmetz High School, who won last year’s contest in their very first year of competition. Now trying to repeat, coach James Sloan must rally his troops and apply much patience and counsel to the few team members who have been acting out of line. The scene where he and his co-instructor confront three unruly students, threatening to kick them off the team illustrates just how much this poetry slam competition – and being a part of a team – means to them. When one of the kids starts crying, we are reminded of the hard fact that, no matter how tough and mature they appear to be, they are still children.

Like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom before it, Louder Than A Bomb reminds us that children, no matter what their socio-economic background may be, when given the opportunity, are capable of achieving great things. The student-poets and their talents really get to shine here, especially when on stage in front of a supportive audience and a mic. Seventeen year-old Nova from Oak Park/River Forest High School writes with passion about her special-needs younger brother and the father she hasn’t spoken to since she was twelve. Her composition is raw; her delivery poised and moving. Nate from Whitney Young Magnet High School is the veteran of the competition, on the cusp of graduating and moving on to bigger things. Nate is a mentor and coach to his younger peers and his advanced writing skills and flair with the pen are clearly on display. He may come off as a bit too confident and cocky, but that’s a miniscule nitpick judging from where he came from (his parents were both drug addicts when he was young) and more importantly, where he may be headed for. The standout here is the immensely likable Adam Gottlieb from Northside College Prep. His poem celebrating all that is poetry is an exceptional blend of writing and performance that brings the house down and makes us aware of a major talent on the rise. Later, Adam performs a piece commemorating his Jewish heritage – a completely different piece, with a different style and register that shows off his impressive discipline and range. Near the end of the film, the group poetry piece performed by four students of Steinmartz is also a stand-out in a film full of passionate, honest, and stirring performances.

One of the mantras of the competition is “The point is not the points…The point is the poetry.” This, a reference to the judges who grade each performance on a scale of 1-10 for scoring purposes is brought to fruition when we see a student from Steinmartz at the end of the film explain what the competition and the art of poetry means to him. It makes for a moving scene and provides us with a tremendous sense of hope. Kevin Coval, co-founder of the Louder Than A Bomb competition, freely admits that “grading” or scoring each piece is not the ideal method for judging a teenager’s efforts and should not even be done, but for the sake of having winners and losers, is inevitable.

Jacobs and Siskel could have explored the tough backgrounds that many of these students seem to come from. Instead, they (perhaps wisely) choose to focus on the competition, and the work itself. Certain aspects are mentioned here and there, but not in a way that detracts from the film’s pacing and scope. In a society that can’t get enough of the reality shows, here we are given a contest with incredible meaning and purpose – and more entertaining and impressive than anything you will see on prime time. Youth poetry slams would make for a wonderful new reality show, but I am afraid that most of the television-viewing public would be dismissive of the art form of the written word. Louder Than A Bomb is an enriching reminder of what students can accomplish with a little hard work and some leadership – one hopes that other states and districts will take a page from the people behind this poetry contest and follow suit.

Director: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Year:       2011

This review was previously published for the D.C.-based online entertainment site Brightest Young Things.

My interview with director Jon Siskel will be posted on The Lantern this week.

Film Review: The Last Mountain

I always walk away with such conflicting feelings whenever I see such eye-opening, alarmist documentaries like Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain. On one hand, I feel like I live in an absolute bubble, completely oblivious to a particular subject that is of vital significance to our society and the world in general. On the other, I am grateful for being alerted to such devastating topics and feel somewhat educated as I peek  outside of my proverbial bubble. The matter then becomes how many movie-goers will also see this small film with a small distribution – and then, of greater importance, what action will the public at large take, if any? This is perhaps the ultimate goal of the documentary filmmaker – get your audience to take action.

The Last Mountain is classic David versus Goliath. However, I am not sure if David ever faced such a formidable opponent as Big Coal. Haney’s film focuses on the battle between the longtime residents of Coal River Valley in West Virginia and the powerful coal companies who continue with the ruinous practice of Mountain Top Removal. Almost half the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal – and a third of this coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia where the battle over blasting the top of “the last mountain” is taking place. The humble townsfolk claim that the practice pollutes our air and water – and is responsible for many deaths in the area. The coal companies, of course, have their own agenda and continue to find loopholes and political friends to support their efforts.

Haney throws many frightening statistics and facts about Mountain Top Removal and the coal industry in general our way – while still managing to focus primarily on the passionate residents of Coal River Mountain. And though the film depicts their own struggle, Haney makes it abundantly clear that this is not simply a West Virginia problem, but a problem that the entire country must face as well.

There are clear heroes and villains portrayed here, with Massey Energy, the third largest coal company in America and responsible for more Mountain Top Removal than any other company, being at the forefront of the black hat brigade. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is shown in the worst light and has since retired amidst civil and criminal investigations. In addition to the many egregious safety regulation violations under Massey’s leadership, he also proved to be an enemy of the unionized coal miner – eliminating over 40,000 jobs and hiring non-union workers. Joe Manchin, the Governor of West Virginia is also implicated. Haney illustrates how Big Coal and politicians are in bed together, and does so in one beautiful juxtaposition where Governor Manchin is in his offices telling local residents that he will do everything in his power to help their cause and have a new school built for the children out of harm’s way of toxic pollutants. In the very next scene, Manchin is seen at a political gathering proclaiming, “I’m a friend of coal.” Another chilling fact is that the coal mining industry has spent more than $86 million on political campaigns and lobbying efforts. You begin to realize why leaders like George W. Bush and yes, Barack Obama don’t act in the best interests of the people and our environment. Bush received tons of money from the coal companies – and the Obama administration has been hesitant in altering the legalization of Mountain Top Removal for the very same reasons.

The heroes are many – those residents of Coal River Valley who are fighting the good fight. Their mouthpiece is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose WaterKeeper Alliance has fought for clean water in the United States. Mr. Kennedy gets a lot of camera time here and he is clearly passionate about the cause and not by simply signing over a check, but by fighting alongside those in need, fighting the uphill battle. One wonders if this is one of those documentaries that tell only one side of the story, but when Mr. Kennedy confronts Bill Raney (president of the West Virginia Coal Association) in a local restaurant to discuss their differing positions, Raney comes off looking ignorant and silly, without a leg to stand on.

The Last Mountain is a moving and powerful film that shows us how much power we as citizens can have if we stand up for what we believe in and act. We may not have heard of Coal River Mountain residents Bo Webb, Ed Willey, Jennifer Hall-Massey, or Maria Gunnoe – but they are clearly heroes in their own right. They are fighting not only to save their own small place on the map – but for the rest of America as well. Gunnoe states at the end of the film that we are all connected to coal in one way or another. The Last Mountain does an admirable job at helping us take our very own positions on this fight.

Director:   Bill Haney
Year:          2011

Review of Redford’s “The Conspirator”: A Gripping Historical Drama

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? The category – “4th Grade History.”
Q: Who shot President Abraham Lincoln?
A: John Wilkes Booth, of course.
OK, that was a lay-up. Fine…good for you. Now let’s play a little hardball.
Q: Who was the first woman to be executed by the United States government and for what offense?
Yes, I know it’s a two-part question, but it’s my game and I make the rules.

The answer is certainly not common knowledge – and not taught in any elementary textbook covering American history. But leave it tofilmmaker Robert Redford — who is certainly drawn to historical/political dramas — to tackle this notorious subject, which remains one of the most fascinating subplots in our country’s tumultuous history.

The horrifying news spread quickly across the country that was already in a state of turmoil and bereavement in the wake of the Civil War. The President had been shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC – and the very next morning (April 15, 1865), died from a shot to the head from a .44 caliber Derringer at the hands of Mr. Booth. The unforgiving government needed to act – and quickly – to satisfy the country’s thirst for revenge into this heinous act. As Booth went on the lam, seven men and one woman were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State. That woman was Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house where Booth and his men (which included Surratt’s son, John) would meet and allegedly plan. Her trial, outlandishly held in front of a military tribunal rather than in the confines of a civil court, is at the heart of Mr. Redford’s gripping courtroom drama, The Conspirator.

Defending Mary Surratt (a stone-faced Robin Wright) is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), an officer who is just covering from combat while he fought for the union. He wants no part of this case, nor does he allow himself to believe in Surratt’s possible innocence for a minute. However, it is Senator Reverdy Johnson (the always magnetic Tom Wilkinson) who reminds him of the constitutional rights given to our citizens and thus persuades him into taking the case, albeit with extreme reluctance. His opposition? Just about the entire United States government, led by the mighty Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), Lincoln’s Secretary of War whose actions and demeanor eerily resemble one Dick Cheney in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. He wants revenge – at any cost, no matter that there may be no tangible proof that Ms. Surratt had anything to do with conspiring against the president. In addition, the inexperienced Aiken must try his case in front of a panel of Union Army officers (headed by Colm Meaney) who seem more eager in declaring the defendant’s guilt than allowing any evidence that may in fact by beneficial to her. Danny Huston, always cast as the heavy, plays the shrewd prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt.

The all-star cast, for the most part, turns in some splendid performances. McAvoy is quickly becoming one of the industry’s strongest (young) leading men – and here, he holds the film together in impressive fashion. Not only do we see him wrestle with his feelings concerning his defendant, but his own domestic issues as well — mainly, wanting to begin his life anew and marry the girl (Alexis Bledel) who waited for him while he was off fighting in the war. Kevin Kline lights up the screen as always – and it is great to see him take on such a ruthless character. As Mary Surratt, Wright is stoic and valiant – but I wish we were able to see a bit more emotion from this woman who is caught in such a helpless situation. She rarely, if ever, lets her guard down and we never get to see what the character is feeling deep down. She seems too detached, too apathetic. The wonderful character actor Stephen Root has a small turn as a key witness for the prosecution. Root makes the very most of his screen time, as he lies and fumbles his way on the witness stand. The one terrible misfire in casting here is comedic actor Justin Long who plays Aiken’s close friend and injured Civil War soldier. Here, Long looks completely out of place – like a square peg in a round hole.

The overall look of The Conspirator is strikingly authentic. It is very clear that much research went into all details — from the sinister looking conspirator hoods to the 19th century handcuffs to the small accessories on the aristocracy – all providing us with a genuine sense of the time. Louise Frogley’s costumes are spot on and Melissa M. Levander’s production design provides a true sense of time and place – creating a long ago Washington DC from their shooting locales in Savannah, Georgia. Redford always seems to be very aware of lighting  – and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography works from a vast palette of rich colors.

The Conspirator is the debut film of The American Film Company whose mission is to produce movies about true events from our nation’s past. In teaming up with the studio, Redford was forced to work on a much smaller, more modest budget than he had become accustomed to. Not that you could tell. The grandeur is still clearly up on the screen — and though a historical drama, the film is certainly entertaining and hopefully will appeal to a wider, more commercial audience. The courtroom scenes are quite intense and the intimate scenes between McAvoy and Wright are gripping. And though the film never gets preachy or overly political in any way, what comes across loud and clear is that we are witnessing the unfortunate case of one woman being tried in what proved to be a mockery of the judicial system. Panic, fear and vengeance prevailed over reason and the rights of a human being who may or may not have been guilty. For those familiar with Redford’s work in front of and behind the camera, you can see why he may have been easily drawn into this subject matter – it is an American story that raises many questions about the ideals on which this country was founded. It illustrates heroism and corruption at the highest of levels – and though it never reaches the depths I was hoping it would go to, The Conspirator is certainly worth seeing — and yes, an important, provocative film.

Director:   Robert Redford
Year:         2011

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s mostly-successful directorial debut, is part sci-fi/fantasy, part suspense/thriller – but at its heart is a true, old-fashioned love story. How much is one man willing to sacrifice…how far is he willing to go — to be with the woman he loves? Do we control our own destiny or does fate direct the story of our lives? There lies the premise in this intriguing and fast-paced flick based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 classic-paranoid short story.

Matt Damon stars as the young and charismatic New York politician David Norris. He’s the politico flavor-of-the-moment and seemingly has everything going for him – charm, wit, good looks, and perhaps most importantly, on the cusp of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, has lots of registered voters who adore him. Strange that this man who seemingly has it all doesn’t have a lovely lady by his side, which irked me as I kept thinking how far-fetched that was – until I later realized….that is all part of “the plan.”

David “unexpectedly” meets Elise Sellas (the very beautiful Emily Blunt) in a men’s bathroom just moments before he’s about to make one of the biggest speeches of his career. Elise is a ballet dancer and unlike any woman that David has ever met. She’s not simply stunning (and available, as chance might have it), but funny, free-spirited, and very talented. There’s an immediate connection and David must be with her – it’s kismet. The two were meant to be together. Or were they? [add sound cue here: BA-BA-BUMMMM!!!]

As the two quickly fall for one another, a mysterious group of men conspire to keep the two apart, interfering in David’s daily routines. These are the men who control our fates – the men of the Adjustment Bureau, and though they may look like government agents, they are operatives of a far different kind – agents of Fate itself who do their clandestine work on behalf of The Chairman. You see, there is a remarkable future mapped out for David – a future that the Bureau desperately wants to ensure – that may lead all the way to the White House. Elise is to become a world renowned dancer. None of this happens if the two lovers end up together. A fascinating dilemma that is handled quite nimbly, as David must consider whether to give up the one woman he has ever truly loved – or go up against seemingly overpowering odds and tackle the forces of destiny.

Nolfi (author of the screenplays for The Sentinel, The Bourne Ultimatum, and the disastrous Ocean’s 12) shows that he can surely direct a big-budget Hollywood thriller. And he has made sure to get a top-notch creative team to assist him, leading with two-time Oscar winner John Toll as his cinematographer. The many exterior shots of New York City are wonderfully handled and the pacing during the action sequences happens at breakneck speed. In fact, the city itself is marvelously showcased here, taking you back to Lumet’s 1970’s city films. Jay Rabinowitz’s editing is effective and at times, razor-sharp, while 10-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman has composed a fitting score that deftly weaves in and out from action and suspense to the more intimate scenes between the two lovers.

Matt Damon fits the bill quite nicely here, though at first I was a bit surprised to see him representing the great state of New Yawk (rather than his beloved Massachusetts). Damon, for the most part, has made a habit of selecting choice roles and strong films to star in. His political demeanor comes off as authentic, as does his love for the stunning dancer. When Fate intervenes and separates the two, David takes the same bus at the same exact time every day for three years with the hopes of seeing her yet again – and Damon illustrates this longing determination in subtle fashion, careful not to step into overly melodramatic territory. Blunt’s playfulness and spontaneity help showcase the strong chemistry between the two. She also has the slender body to play a professional dancer. The supporting cast does a fine job as well. Terence Stamp brings his magnificent presence and weighty voice to Thompson, a kind of “cleanup” guy for the Bureau. He never loses his cool and, much to his credit, doesn’t play the “villainy” role, but rather, tries to convince David of the greater good in the Chairman’s master plan. As the sympathetic Bureau agent Harry Mitchell, Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) brings an intelligent humanity to the situation and offers careful guidance to David when it is most needed.

But for all of its merits, the film comes to a crashing halt in its last few minutes. And it isn’t so much how the film ends that totally bummed me out (happy or sad – I won’t give that away), but the abrupt way in which it ended that left me feeling absolutely disgruntled and unsatisfied. This is not simply a bad ending, but, dare I say, a lazy one sans any creativity (which is even more of a letdown considering how inventive the story is to begin with). Here we are treated to an absolute deus ex machina in its most blatant form – one that would make Euripedes himself blush with shame – that we half expect to see The Chairman him/herself descend down to earth and put an end to the proceedings. I’m also not much of a stickler for continuity errors, but this film had one of the sloppiest ones in recent memory — Elise makes such a strong point of loosening David’s tie before he speaks to his constituents and in the very next shot, his tie is nicely tightened. I just couldn’t let it go. For 90 minutes, The Adjustment Bureau has all of the makings of being an excellent film – romantic, intriguing, and suspenseful. And though the lethargic storytelling and overall corniness of the finale nearly ruins all of this goodwill, I would recommend the movie to anyone who likes a smart action flick or an imaginative love story. I simply wish it ended with more of a Bang and much less of a feeble Clunk. Oh, what might have been…

Year:       2011
Director:  George Nolfi

Peter Eramo’s Film Review of the Terrible “Trash Humpers”

There are those movies that I think are just bad – but can at least see how others may enjoy and even appreciate them. Then there are those movies that are just plain awful – and the majority who claim to appreciate the filmmaking and absolutely love the film are simply lavishing their pretentious airs about, wanting to be different and one of the few to proclaim, “I get it.” Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a perfect example of such a catastrophic film. Despite what J. Hoberman (Village Voice) and other “artsy” critics might have you believe, this is one hopeless, boring, and futile project disguised as cinema vérité, but in reality is just plain crap.

Abstaining from any narrative structure at all, Korine, the self-proclaimed “mistakist artist,” gives us a small band of older troublemakers who run about their trailer trash towns creating all kinds of havoc. The painfully long 78-minute film (shot on video) has the look of a worn out VHS home video, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But what we are given are snippets of random, silly acts with no form or logic attached, that plays like disappointing freak show. We watch the costumed characters ride bikes with baby dolls attached to them, destroy TV’s and other gadgets in abandoned lots, drink plenty and, most of all, dry-hump trash bins with reckless abandon anywhere they can find. There is a scene where “Momma” (Rachel Korine) gives delightful advice to a young boy on how to properly insert a razor blade into an apple to offer to a friend; another where a chunky hooker in a thong is fondling one of the guy’s junk while singing “Silent Night.” On top of this is the incessant laughing/shrieking that manages to hit the bottom of your spine and make its way up to your throbbing head, as it grates on your very last nerve. And on and on the stupidity goes.

Korine has said that growing up in Nashville, he would see trash cans strewn about and an elderly group of boogeymen would come out at night, camouflage themselves with bushes, get covered in dirt and peep through other people’s windows. This, my friends, was the mighty inspiration for this poor excuse of a film. To give off the look of spontaneity, Korine cut the film on two VCR’s and shooting is said to have taken two weeks. No script was attached, but rather, just a collection of ideas. Perhaps they (and in turn, we) would have been better off with some semblance of a script.

Remember, Korine was one of the writers behind the fascinating and brilliant 1995 film Kids and has since succeeded in alienating his audience by making movies with the sole intention of making us feel uneasy. David Lynch does it well. Werner Herzog does it well. Lars von Trier also succeeds more often than not. Korine is none of these masters. Unlike some of his previous work that can be viewed (at least by a few) as thought-provoking, challenging or downright disturbing, Trash Humpers is a tedious mess with nothing at all to say.

Year:       2010
Director:  Harmony Korine

Movie Review of “Rabbit Hole” by Peter Eramo

They say that losing a child is the greatest grief a parent can endure. For whatever reason, there is the myth that the majority of married couples who experience the death of a child end up in divorce. However, a 2006 study showed that only 16% of these couples go down that unfortunate path and of that 16%, less than half felt that the child’s death actually had an impact on the marriage terminating. So there goes that theory!

Hollywood likes to over-dramatize this sensitive occurrence from time to time – perhaps never done more brilliantly than Robert Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People. Oddly enough, that film ends with a more-than-likely divorce. Lawrence Kasdan’s touching The Accidental Tourist and Todd Field’s outstanding In the Bedroom are other examples of terrific films that center on the loss of a young child.

Now Rabbit Hole attempts to tackle this very difficult subject matter which doesn’t scream “Box-Office Bucks” for people looking to escape reality and have a good time. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the film is based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s award-winning 2005 play (he also, thankfully, wrote the screen adaptation) and produced by Nicole Kidman’s own production company. What Rabbit Hole gives us is an intriguing and, at times, fascinating exploration of a once happily married couple now struggling to survive in the wake of their young son’s death eight months prior.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett – parents who are grieving in very different ways. Howie gets to go to work all day for a little escape, while Becca stays in the home, tormented by traces of her lost son that linger in every nook. Howie goes out and plays squash, he embraces group therapy sessions, while still secretly watching home videos of his son in his private time. In other words, Howie seems to be dealing with his tragedy about as well as anyone can be. He mourns the death of his son, but still manages to exist and go about his business from day-to-day. Eckhart handles the tricky role quite well. He is a rock…the “strong” one, but you can tell that he may break at any moment, which is a credit to Eckart’s work here.

Becca handles her loss quite differently. She doesn’t want to socialize at all. She hates group therapy and simply wants to be left alone. She can’t seem to move on sexually with her loving husband and she lashes out at her mother (Dianne Wiest) at inopportune moments. She desperately needs help, but will not allow herself to receive any. That is, until she accidentally spots young Jason (Miles Teller) on his school bus on the way home. Jason is a senior in high school and is the young man who was behind the wheel in the ill-fated accident that killed Becca’s only child. Becca is drawn to him, though she is not sure why. They meet in the park and talk. There is a connection between the two. The exchanges between Kidman and Teller, who has not been in a feature-film until this, are riveting. Teller is a true find and a sensation here. His gestures, reactions, mannerisms are wildly authentic and I am sure we will be seeing more of the young actor in the years to come. Kidman has played the “cold”/detached character many times before and she does fine here. Becca though is in deep mourning, despite her behavior, and I never felt that Kidman showed this in clear fashion – nor does she garner as much sympathy from us as she perhaps should.

Dianne Wiest is wonderful as Nat, which should come as a shock to no one. She is much stronger and much smarter than she looks and does her best to reach out to her daughter. She too has experienced the loss of a child – and though one would think this bond would bring the two women closer together – it sadly takes on the opposite effect. Sandra Oh is also a stand-out here as Gaby, another grieving parent who the Corbett’s meet at group therapy. When Becca decides to drop therapy altogether, Howie insists on going and his friendship with Gaby is the film’s only other interesting subplot.

Rabbit Hole is a tight film and tackles its rough material very delicately. It has a realistic look and feel to it and Lindsay-Abaire’s characters are intriguing to watch. Going “down the rabbit hole” is a metaphor for adventure into the unknown in Lewis Carroll’s masterful work. Here, it seems that once Becca spots Jason by happenstance, she in for her own personal journey of rediscovery. If the subject matter doesn’t turn you off, I’d certainly recommend seeing it.

Year:       2010
Director:  John Cameron Mitchell

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