A Look Back: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Being a child actor, like being a clerk in a toy store or someone who dresses up as a cartoon animal at Disney World, is one of those professions that may strike you as a blast when you yourself are a child, but later that you come to realize you’re probably very wrong about. Because the eighties’, the era in which I grew up, had more than its share of cautionary examples of the ways the arts industry and fame can damage a young person – Gary Coleman, Tiffany and Drew Barrymore, to name a few – I soon came to realize that acting (or singing) was not the most stable of jobs for someone my age. One big disadvantage, at least in the pre-social networking era when kids’ triumphs and defeats could only be captured on home video or non-digital camera and revealed to a relatively small audience, was that the entire world got to watch you progress through life on the big screen. For example, take one of the biggest kids’ book/movie franchises of all time – and go back to the very first installment: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (author: J.K. Rowling; director: Chris Columbus) and try concentrating knowing what happened to all the cast. Once upon a time, there was a lonely British boy, and holy cannoli, doesn’t Daniel Radcliffe and co. look young!

Chris Columbus is the man responsible for helming several hit fantasies during my youth, such as “Adventures in Babysitting,” which explores what happens when your caretaker decides to overthrow all commonsense and take her charges into the Big City at night; and “Home Alone,” which portrays the challenges of surviving on your own at Christmas while your family thoughtlessly jet sets off without you. The choice of director at the time raised some eyebrows because he isn’t English, but as it turned out, he does a respectable job of capturing the magic of discovering that you yourself (Daniel and his friends, played by Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are a wizard and get an all-expenses paid scholarship to a magic academy called Hogwarts. Not only that, but you’re the Boy Who Lived, which makes you a big deal because both your parents died fighting the forces of evil (here known as Voldemort). If you’ve spent your entire life up to this point with a stepfamily that out-steps Cinderella’s, this is welcome news indeed, even if your idiot guardian (Richard Griffiths) packs you all off to a deserted island to avoid receiving your invitation. Fortunately, this does not deter genial giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the groundskeeper at Hogwarts, who in response to headmaster Dumbledore’s (Richard Harris) request, tracks Daniel down and helps him enroll.

Judging from how awesome back-to-school shopping for Hogwarts is (thanks to the generosity of his dead parents, Daniel acquires an owl and a wand), not to mention the train ride to school (where you can purchase jelly beans of every flavor and meet both nemesis (Tom Felton) and loyal if dorky friend (Matthew Lewis), it might be reasonable to conclude that the school itself will be even better. Well, yes and no. True, Daniel gets to join the coolest House on campus (Gryffindor) and make the broomstick flying team even though he’s a mere first year, but he also must deal with his perpetually sarcastic Potions teacher (Alan Rickman at his slyest and silkiest). Daniel and his friends make the common mistake of believing that a teacher who is tough on you actually can’t stand you (and here there may be some truth to that), so when they hear about a mysterious Sorcerer’s Stone on a forbidden floor, they jump to the conclusion that Alan intends to steal it. So off they go on an adventure to prevent this – and while it all turns out to be one of those wacky movie mix-ups, it does help Daniel and his friends learn some important life lessons – which because there are seven more installments, might need to be learned multiple times.

The author and director never answer several questions which I, for one, would still like to know the answers to: mainly, what is the hospital’s reaction when Daniel’s cousin (Harry Melling) appears in the ER with a magic pig’s tail on his posterior, and how the heck did Daniel’s mean stepfamily get off the deserted island if Robbie and Daniel take off in the only boat?  But these are nitpicks because the movie faithfully captures the magic of the book. And who knew that the franchise would still be going strong over seventeen years later?

 

Advertisements

A Look Back: Bridge to Terabithia

It’s a lesson that no one is especially eager to learn but must be done when you’re a kid: it’s that animals tend to get the shaft (literally) in books and films. (They also die on TV shows, but are usually phrased out without anyone explaining where they went, a less traumatic route, so you can assume they ran away due to exposure to overacting.) Take “Where the Red Fern Grows,” in which a plucky youngster’s beloved dog winds up dying from injuries sustained in a raccoon hunt, and then his companion dog stops eating out of grief and dies, too. Or, to switch genres, “The Neverending Story,” in which the hero’s horse perishes in the Swamp of Sadness, though it is miraculously revived at the end. In another book-turned-film “Bridge to Terabithia,” by author Katherine Paterson, starring Josh Hutchinson and AnnaSophia Robb, it’s even worse because a) it’s an accident, b) it happens when one of the friends is off having a blast elsewhere and if he’d just invited her…and c) the victim (AnnaSophia) doesn’t believe in Heaven. That is admittedly a lot of angst to juggle but in the right hands, well worth introducing one’s kid to.

In addition to discussing death and dying in an age-appropriate way, as well as being a lot of fun in many places, the movie also tucks in a feminist message, i.e. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better!” at least when it comes to preteen foot races at recesses, but the movie (mostly) avoids any preachiness. The main character (Josh) and his less-than-thrilled cohorts discover this at the beginning of the film when they grudgingly permit AnnaSophia to compete against them – and she beats the pants off them all. Though Josh, who tends to feel like a misfit at home (he feels his parents favor his sisters) and at school with his peers, is understandably disappointed, he winds up befriending AnnaSophia, and together the two form a magical world (the titular Terabithia) in the woods. There was a made-for-TV-film of “Bridge,” on Wonderworks when I was growing up, but unsurprisingly, technology has improved much since then, so Josh’s and AnnaSophia’s adventures are far more sophisticated, thanks to computer generating (those scenes are shot in Auckland, New Zealand). Toward the end, the tragedy occurs when AnnaSophia accidentally dies while Josh is on a museum day trip with his Manic Pixie Art Teacher (Zooey Deschanel). This raises all sorts of questions, but in the end, Josh is able to resolve some of them and even introduce his younger sister (Bailee Madison) to the world of Terabithia (after a safer bridge has been built).

The book was written to help the author’s son come to terms with his grief over a classmate’s death. It does, as I mentioned, raise Important Questions that can’t always be satisfactorily answered, but as long as there’s genuine love and empathy in those left behind, the movie reminds us, they don’t need to be. True, the symbolic bridge that Josh winds up constructing looks exactly like something a boy that age would build if he had a crack team of set design artists helping, but the film is excellent anyway.

 

Movie Review: Logan

If the filmmakers decide just to go with the name of the character in the title, it usually means one of three things. One, it’s a biopic. Two, it’s a franchise-type character or at least the original character in a well-known book. Or three, they got together, attempted valiantly to come up with a title that is both evocative and instructive, and failed, so they kept the most obvious. In “Logan’s” case, it tells the viewer that the subject is Logan a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) although much screen time is also given to his young daughter (Dafne Keen).

“What the fuck?” is Hugh’s opening line. As “Risky Business” taught us in the eighties, this is sometimes necessary to say, and boy, is it ever here. When you wake up on the floorbed of a truck apparently having been knocked unconscious and kidnapped, it is indeed appropriate. Luckily, his captors choose to remove and threaten him in a late night abandoned junkyard place, which is violating one of the cardinal Movie Rules. Thus the viewer will not be surprised to learn that even outnumbered and with no mysterious handyman figure showing up to save him, Hugh manages to get away. He then heads for his hideout near the Mexican border where his terminally ill mentor (Patrick Stewart) and his helpmate (Stephen Merchant) are living. Neither is real happy to see him, but then Hugh gets even worse news when a woman accosts him and insists that he save her child (Dafne) by bringing her to the Canadian border. But the real kicker is that Patrick claims the kid is his, and Hugh, still relying on a Hulk-changing green liquid to do battle, is in deep denial. A reasonable person might wind up pointing out that the girl has freaking retractable claws for hands and Ninja moves that would put Mr. Miyagi to shame, who the heck does he think the alternative is – Edward Scissorhands? But everyone is patient while Hugh takes the rest of the movie to acknowledge this. It’s a long trip to North Dakota, but in many ways, the inner trip will take longer.

The movie takes place in the near future – a world in which it’s believed all the mutants have been eradicated, but eventually, we learn that an evil scientist has been concocting designer killing machines in his lab (from where Dafne’s guardian smuggles her out). A sinister figure with the telltale Gold Tooth of Untrustworthiness (Boyd Holbrook) is on the trail of Dafne and her fellow subjects, all of whom possess formidable superpowers (ice breath, telekinesis, etc.), so it’s necessary for Hugh to do some fancy footwork. Somehow, although there are only barbed wire top enclosures to ram through down South to make a getaway with his two passengers, Hugh doesn’t manage to evade the bad guys until the final showdown in a forest. Several key franchise figures don’t make it to the credits, but as the movie shows, there’s always the next generation to pin one’s hopes on. Certainly, if Dafne retains her interest in acting, she could easily be the focus of a sequel.

Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

“If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life,” a character deadpans in “Dazed and Confused,” “remind me to kill myself.” It’s a sentiment that the heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen,” might share, trapped as she is in an excruciatingly awkward adolescence. We meet Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) in a flashback as a petulant seven-year-old refusing to get out of the car and go into school, and as the years progress, things only get worse, although she does make a best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), with whom she’s inseparable – at least up until the film begins. Then suddenly, things fall apart. Or more accurately, they explode.

So what is the cataclysmic event that rocks Hailee’s world? Well, actually there’s two. First, her father dies in an accident leaving the family: Hailee, her golden boy older brother (Blake Jenner) and her flaky mother (Kyra Sedgwick) coping shakily a couple years later. Second, after Hailee’s mom meets a guy online and departs for an impromptu weekend with him (are there really single parents who do that?), Blake winds up hooking up with Hailee’s best friend.  Even worse, it isn’t just a one night stand; they actually start dating. This triggers all sorts of unresolved issues, for which Hailee has just her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) to complain to. Woody, playing a real-life Haymitch who is still convinced the world isn’t that great a place (even without the Hunger Games), is basically an adult version of Hailee’s character, but that also means that he’s able to relate to her (albeit in a caustic way) and help her work through some of her problems. But even those occasionally leave him scratching his head, such as when Hailee posts an unfortunate message on Facebook, and he can only suggest she be careful of run-on sentences in the future. Luckily, as tends to happen in these movies with odd frequency, there is a backup guy (Hayden Szeto) waiting in the wings to console Hailee – after she’s learned some hard life lessons.

While watching “The Edge of Seventeen,” I started thinking about John Hughes’ movies for two reasons. One is that this film does a similarly perceptive job of capturing the pains and triumphs of those years. Two, I wondered why the filmmakers chose to use the title of a Stevie Nicks’ song yet not feature the song in the soundtrack? I’m not sure how they could have made it fit, but it made me remember how well Hughes incorporated the title songs that lent their names to films like “Pretty in Pink,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” But that’s nitpicking because “The Edge of Seventeen” is excellent with or without a retro tune of the same name. And although “The Edge of Seventeen,” does have a few minor problems (such as the unfortunate chemistry between Hailee and Blake), it is a film which deserves (like many of the Hughes’ teen ones) to be watched over and over. Even people twice the characters’ ages (for example, me) can always use a reminder that 1) it’s not always about you, and 2) everyone has problems. Some are just better at pretending otherwise.

A Look Back: Orphan

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” is a motto that can apply to quite a few things. Including: a) email from foreign royalty or online popups informing you that you’ve just won a free laptop, b) or (in the snail mail era) congratulation letters from the Publisher’s Cleainghouse Sweepstakes, or c) anyone who comes for an extended visit in a Hollywood movie, particularly if their first act is to charm the pants off everyone – except the token skeptic who everyone rolls their eyes at for being such a spoilsport. “My Houseguest from Hell,” featuring newly adopted children, new roommates, or even just overly friendly cable guys, is a popular theme in Hollywood movies, as the horror movie “Orphan,” shows. The tagline is “Can you keep a secret?” though it could also have been, “Imagine adopting a child even wore than (The Omen’s) Damien.” Though I think the star of “Orphan,” a nine-year-old played by Isabelle Furhman could easily defeat Damien in a battle of evil versus evil, she might have more of a challenge going pigtail to pigtail with Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed.”

In Drew Barrymore’s wilderness years when she was a teen, she played (among other villains) a houseguest from hell in the movie “Poison Ivy.’ While certainly grisly and creepy, the film unfortunately gives its game away in the opening scene when Drew clonks an injured dog on the head to put it out of its misery then proceeds to sweetly smile. “Orphan,” however, plays its cards close to its chest. First we meet what looks to be a struggling but still loving couple consisting of Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, who feel adrift after the death of their infant daughter. Though they have two other adorable preteen children (played by Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer), one of whom (Aryana) is deaf due to a neglectful act on the part of Vera, they think it might be good to adopt another kid. So off they go to a Catholic orphanage, where they (ominous rumble of thunder in the distance) fall in love with a curiously prim but artistic and engaging Russian girl named Esther.

Pretty soon they bring her home for a trial run, where she gets along famously with everyone except Jimmy. But soon, unexplained, very bad things start occurring whenever Isabelle happens to be in the vicinity (including a school bully ending up in the hospital). Sure enough, when Vera starts investigating into Isabelle’s past, she finds that the girl is not (and this is a big “not”) at all what she appears to be. In fact – spoiler alert – she’s an adult! Who has a bone stunting disease that makes her look like a child! And who used to reside in a mental hospital! Yes, really. While the viewer is doing mental gymnastics trying to wrap their brain around that concept, lots of horrible things start happening, involving a hammer, one of the staff from the orphanage, a tree house, multiple fires and in the climax, an icy pond. This cinematic game of “Clue” ends with the family safe and sound, but with the viewer likely to be shaken and left scratching their head, feeling a few beats behind the twists.

Random anecdote: I once knew a woman who adopted two Russian orphans roughly the same age and younger than Isabelle’s character (at least as originally believed) who turned out not to actually be sisters. Luckily, however, compared to the family in “Orphan,” she got off easy, and it didn’t really turn out to matter. Still, adoption can be a hazardous procedure in movies, and it might be best to adopt singing orphans, not ones with artistic talent, or perhaps avoid adoption altogether. Or at least pick the kid who’s running around like everyone else. Although if it’s a horror film, you’re probably screwed no matter what.

Before I Fall: A Parody Script

FADE IN:

EXT. PACIFIC NORTHWEST VISTA

ZOEY DEUTCH (VO)
Some people have a zillion tomorrows. Me, I have only ONE, but wait, there’s a TWIST! Just stick with me, and you’ll see.

INT. ZOEY’S BEDROOM

ZOEY DEUTCH
(holds up iPhone which is set to the MOVIE SYMBOLISM PLAYLIST and blaring Big Data’s “Dangerous”)
Hello there. You’re going to hate me pretty soon, but don’t worry I’ll get my comeuppance eventually.

ZOEY acts like a BITCH to her LITTLE SISTER and PARENTS before bitchily stomping out to grab a ride to school with her bitchy best friend, HALSTON SAGE. They pick up CYNTHY WU and MEDALION RAHIMI who act all excited about facing another school day of bitchiness.

MEDALION RAHIMI
Hi, Zoey! Here’s a condom so you can lose your VIRGINITY tonight to KIAN LAWLEY. Won’t that be an intriguing decision for you to grapple with?

ZOEY DEUTCH
It would if anyone had bothered to develop this character. My designated “boyfriend” has less depth than a cutout Cupid. By the way, how do I tell you guys apart, other than the obvious ethnic differences?

HALSTON SAGE
I’m the blondest and bitchiest, which means I’m hurting the most under my mean exterior.

CYNTHY WU
I’m the “smart” one, a term used loosely here because I kind of sort of know about the butterfly effect.

MEDALION RAHIMI
I’m the one who’s up for anything!

ZOEY DEUTCH
Got it.

EXT. HIGH SCHOOL

INT. ZOEY DEUTCH’s ENGLISH CLASS

ENGLISH TEACHER
(real line)
Sisyphus. Not an STD.

(pauses)
This will be a lot less amusing when you hear me say it for the fourth time.

ROSE DELIVERY GIRL
Greetings! I have two dozen CUPID’S DAY ROSES for ZOEY as concrete proof she is the most popular of all.

ZOEY DEUTCH
(takes roses and preens)
Way to crib from “Mean Girls.” OK, hate me yet?

After class, ZOEY walks down the hall in slo-mo, disses her former friend, LOGAN MILLER, by pretending she isn’t going to his party, and then goes into the cafeteria to mock ELENA KAMPOUNIS because she is, gasp, different.

ZOEY DEUTCH
Gosh, it’s great being pop…what was that?

KARMA
(rumbles in distance)

HALSTON SAGE
Never mind. Let’s go party.

INT. PARTY FULL OF DRUNK TEENS DANCING

ZOEY joins the PLASTICS on a couch where they hug and cuddle and diss the other partygoers.

ZOEY DEUTCH
Gosh, it’s great being popular. I don’t even care that my “boyfriend” is off hooking up somewhere…what was that?

KARMA
(rumbles in distance)

Suddenly, ELENA bursts into the party and calls them all BITCHES, which at this point is being KIND.

HALSTON SAGE
How dare you speak the truth?

(Leads chant)
Plug it up! Plug it up!”

After ELENA runs off into the night, ZOEY and friends drive home.

EXT. LONELY PACIFIC NORTHWEST RURAL ROAD

HALSTON SAGE
What a looo-zer! As if.

ZOEY DEUTCH
Hey, keep your eye on the…

(is blindsided by oncoming car, dies a horrible death)

INT. MORNING in ZOEY’s BEDROOM

ZOEY DEUTCH
(wakes up to same song, looks completely the same as she did in the opening scene)
WTF? Was that a dream or what?

ZOEEY’s LITTLE SISTER runs in just as she did before and gives her the EXACT SAME ORIGAMI BIRD.

ZOEY DEUTCH
OK, I’m definitely getting the sense that…

MOVIE SYMBOLISM PLAYLIST switches to “Pretty Pimpin” in order to give ZOEY a HELPFUL HINT.

ZOEY DEUTCH
I get it now.

(keeps having deja vu through day; wakes back up after party in bed to “Dangerous”)

ZOEY DEUTCH
Good morning. It’s Valentine’s Day – again! Perhaps I should try acting like a decent human being for a change.

In keeping with this, ZOEY tells her mom that she’s beautiful, befriends their gay classmate, and persuades her friends to STAY IN with her and avoid the FATEFUL PARTY.

INT. PLASTICS’ CRASH PAD

HALSTON SAGE
(checks phone)
Bummer, ELENA’s just committed suicide. Gosh, I’m glad I dumped her in elementary school for being a weirdo. What?

ZOEY DEUTCH
Wait, I’m confused. How can ELENA commit SUICIDE if we weren’t there to push her to the edge with our mockery? Doesn’t this go against every time loop movie ever made?

HALSTON SAGE
Beats me. I’m the pretty, dumb, mean one here.

ZOEY DEUTCH
How come you never told me that you used to be friends with ELENA?

HALSTON SAGE
Uh, we all attended the same school. You honestly didn’t notice?

INT. ZOEY’S BEDROOM – SAME DAY AS BEFORE

ZOEY DEUTCH
Hey, no fair!

(pauses to pout)
OK, since nothing I do makes a difference, I guess I’ll just be a TOTAL UNCENSORED BITCH.

ZOEY accomplishes this by telling her friends what she really thinks of them, so they ditch her by the side of the road. Somehow, she gets to school anyway.

INT. ENGLISH CLASS

ENGLISH TEACHER
Sisyphus. Not an STD.

ZOEY DEUTCH
Hey, I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to give me one.

ENGLISH TEACHER
No, this is a PG-13 movie, so sit back down.

ZOEY’s attempt to be a badass EVENTUALLY FAILS.

INT. ZOEY’S BEDROOM – SAME OLD, SAME OLD

ZOEY realizes that she has to MAKE AMENDS to EVERYONE SHE’S HURT, and so proceeds to do this.

INT. SAME PARTY AS BEFORE

LOGAN MILLER
So why are you hanging out with me again? Is it because your boyfriend’s a douche, and I’m runner-up?

ZOEY DEUTCH
No way. I’ve realized that I was a total shit to you, and that you’re my real love. Let’s make out.

They DO until they are interrupted by a familiar ruckus.

ZOEY DEUTCH
Wait, how can I just be erased from a climactic scene like that? Never mind, bye.

EXT. CREEPY, FOGGY WOODS

ELENA KAMPOUNIS
Go away, you bitch.

ZOEY DEUTCH
No, this is my chance to ALTER HISTORY. It’s all my fault. I’m the bitch. Pretty soon, you’ll have graduated, and this will be all just a blip. So if you just hold on…for one more day…things will go your way.

ELENA KAMPOUNIS
Stop quoting Wilson Phillips, and let me die in peace.

ELENA runs away into the road, but ZOEY dashes after her, and winds up DYING INSTEAD.

AUDIENCE
Well, that’s a bummer.

ZOEY DEUTCH
No, it’s cool because I’ve made up with everyone I’ve ever offended, and how many people who die can claim that?

AUDIENCE
Whatever.
(goes home and rents “Groundhog Day” to cheer up)

END

Movie Review: Before I Fall

During slow moments in films, I often amuse myself by imagining the pitch. The one for “Before I Fall,” was a piece of cake. I’m sure it doesn’t take psychic powers to arrive at the same one I did.

“It’s ‘Mean Girls’ meets ‘Groundhog Day’! Only on Valentine’s Day. Which we call Cupid’s Day for some unexplained reason, but perhaps it’s in the novel this is based on by Lauren Oliver.”

“So we get to see Regina George get hit by a bus over and over. I could go for that.”

“No, actually, it’s the main character who dies repeatedly.”

“Sounds uplifting.”

“It’s a metaphor! And as long as everyone in the cast is adorable, it won’t be too downbeat.”

It’s true that “Before I Fall,” is often downbeat mainly because the main character (Zoey Deutch) suffers from both obliviousness to her shortcomings and has never seen a Hollywood teen movie before. We grasp this right away because at the beginning, she and her clique (Halston Sage, Cynthy Wu and Medalion Rahimi) blithely violate two cardinal rules of such films. They:

a) Viciously mock their outcast classmate (Elena Kampounis) when she crashes a party to tell them what she really thinks of them.

b) Pile into a car afterward and pay virtually no attention to the deserted rural road.

Sure enough, this combination is sufficient to trap Zoey in a time loop, in which she awakens every morning to the same song on her phone and must deal with her annoying little sister before meeting Halston and her friends for a ride to school. Although Zoey was unpopular in elementary school (though why being a horse lover would cause this is beyond me), she has since upgraded her self-image and is secure in her place in the high school pecking order (firmly ensconced at the top). Alas, her best friend, Halston, has a link to the class outcast which she has never revealed to Zoey. However, when the truth comes out at a party given by her former childhood friend (Logan Miller) who she now shuns, Zoey is horrified and upset. Although originally she looks forward to the day with the anticipation of losing her virginity to her boyfriend, Zoey comes to realize that she is destined to alter history in more important ways.

After Zoey learns that Halston and Martha Dumptruck, (I mean Elena) used to be close in elementary school, she feels remorse and attempts to break out of the loop by being a better person, even telling her mom that she’s beautiful. However, she keeps waking up in the same bed. So Zoey goes the “I don’t give a damn,” route, as well as tries to avoid the scenario that leads to the tragedy, but neither quite works. Finally, she grasps that the key is to your own self be true (or as it’s bluntly spelled out “Become who you are.”), and she manages to save Elena from committing suicide.  She also finally gets that it’s the guy with the floppy hair and dorky sweater (Logan) who is your intended boyfriend, even if it’s only for an evening. Zoey, who played a believable college freshman in “Everybody Wants Some!!”, does a good job here passing for a high school senior. “Before I Fall,” is liberally stitched with squares from other well-known movies, but it’s a decent teen movie that will no doubt inspire its own imitations.