June 18, 2004

Van Helsing

The Outside Food Critic is a little depressed.

The Outside Food Critic has applied for jobs from Texas to Toronto, and hasn't had even an interview in months. Outside Food Critic's checking account is hovering somewhere around Absolute Zero (that would be on the Celsius scale—oo, look, a temperature joke!). And, even though every surface has been scrubbed, Outside Food Critic's house is still infested with tiny black ants. Life is bleak, and the cat is annoyed.

I had no choice but to throw myself bodily into a car wreck.

Van Helsing posterGoodbye, Cruel World

Van Helsing
Starring: Hugh "frequently barechested" Jackman, Kate "spunky heroine" Beckinsale, Richard "dead sexy" Roxburgh, David "not playing Faramir in this movie" Wenham, Robbie Coltrane as the voice of the anti-Shrek, and the Addams Family.
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
MPAA says: PG-13, for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality. Frankly, I don't find toothy batlike creatures breathing on the back of someone's neck particularly sensual.
Running time: 132 minutes
Release date: May 7, 2004
Seen at: Tinseltown South, where the staff this night were alternately disinterested, incommunicative, and impolite. Shown in blur-o-vision for the previews and first two-thirds of the movie, which then turned into "completely indistinguishable blobs" until, after some protesting, the projector was finally focussed on the screen. When approaching this theatre from southbound I-35, allot an extra 5-10 minutes to get past the perpetually backed-up traffic light at the overpass. This movie was shown, appropriately, in Theatre 13.

More of a fender bender, really
I'd been told to expect an awful movie with lousy special effects. Having seen the bargain-basement effects in the trailers myself, I was sure other reviewers must be on target about Van Helsing's awfulness.

Boo!Van Helsing takes on every horror-movie cliche it can find and serves them up in an uneven but ultimately enjoyable junk-food meal. If Hellboy is a free-spirited comic book, Van Helsing is live-action anime. It starts off poorly, as if trying to dispense early on with a flurry of marketing department-mandated video-game activity before freeing itself to chew through the goofy plot. It's not straight-out camp, more B-movie plus comedy—a cousin to "Abbot & Costello Meet [insert every possible monster here]." The movie opens in a black-and-white 1930s/Young Frankenstein tableau, with a crowd of easily confused torch-wielding villagers apparently led by Riff Raff.

Once the movie gets past showing off all the weaponry that will be in the video game, and once it has set up the scenes you'll have to fight through on your Playstation, Van Helsing finally settles into a fast-paced story. Implausible, illogical, weird, overwrought, and relatively fun, particularly if you're a fan of any of the actors.

Had Van Helsing shown up on television, I doubt there would have been many complaints. Of course, watching something silly on television doesn't require the huge outlay of cash of an evening at the movies.

Anna & Van Helsing Meet the Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, etc. etc.

Vampire Hunter D Gabriel Van Helsing arrives at a beleaguered village, and the scene goes something like this:

Torch-wielding villagers: Kill the stranger! For no good reason! Rargh!
Anna (Kate Beckinsale): His name is... Van Helsing.
Torch-wielding villagers: Oooo.
Outside Food Critic: It's Vampire Hunter D!
Torch-wielding villagers: Oooo.
Riff Raff: Kill him anyway!

Fortunately, the village is attacked, cows fly through the air, and people are otherwise distracted.

But, who is this Vampire Hunter Van Helsing, you ask?

Anna and her heelsVan Helsing is an action hero with a flop of anime-hero hair, who has forgotten his past and is driven by orders from a secret Vatican-based society. The Vatican's ecumenical anti-monster division, which seems to be run like Maxwell Smart's Control headquarters, sends Van Helsing and two bagfuls of destructive toys out to destroy the supernatural evils threatening the world in 1888. On this journey he also has the help of his trusty gadget-inventing sidekick, Carl (David Wenham with a bad haircut). Kate Beckinsale is Anna Valerious, the requisite heroine, squeezed into a leather corset with her decolletage fluffing out the top. Her family has spent nine generations attempting to destroy Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is henpecked but is cooler than cool and scary as the devil himself and has a nice ponytail holder. If Anna and Van Helsing don't succeed, all nine generations of Valeriouses will be consigned to Purgatory forever. Oh, and Anna has a dishy brother, Velkan Valerious (Will Kemp), who has the courtesy to remove his shirt at various junctures.

Velkan Valerious (Will Kemp)Thus, Van Helsing has journeyed across the Carpathians into Transylvania to a small village populated by vampire-chow (you'd think people would relocate; maybe they're having as much trouble selling their condos as I am). Along the way, Frankenstein (Samuel West), his Borg-like piston-legged monster (Shuler Hensley), furry werewolves, Igor, Jawas local Tatooine union 101, and some truly unnattractive children variously menace, slaughter, explode, growl, howl, catch fire, and waltz. Plus, there's the cow.

The special effects manage horror of the "nightmares for the next ten weeks" level when they are simple and on the small scale. Through most of the movie, though, I expected Donkey and Puss-in-Boots to peek around a corner and invite the CG-critters out for lunch. As for the plot and Van Helsing's hidden past, you'll know what's coming, but it hardly matters. There are occasional spooky moments (creepy, not simply "jump out and yell boo!"), and there is even some elegance and spine-chilling beauty. Then there are the painfully obvious bits, the expected homages, and, well, a distinct lack of logic. Most disappointingly, the climactic confrontation is edited poorly, robbing the audience of some of the satisfaction of seeing the battle between hero and villain through to the end.

David WenhamIn case you needed proof that every chase scene ends the same way, even a horsedrawn carriage can explode in a fireball if tipped over the right sort of cliff.

To See or Not to See: Worth a look on video or DVD. Rent it, don't buy it.

Sitting through the credits so you don't have to: The theatre brought the lights up in the middle of the credits so that one of the staff could poke around under my seat (repeated questions about what they were looking for were pointedly ignored), so the screen was hard to see, but I doubt I missed anything fancy after the first few minutes of creepy lettering.

Outside Food: Garlic bagel chips and a bottle of red fruity drink pretending to be wine pretending to be a cut-crystal wineglass poured up by Frank Langella.

Blurry Previews: Catwoman; The Day After Tomorrow in a new trailer showing lots more of the nifty Armageddon effects; M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, where everyone wears yellow felt but appear to have names and not numbers; The Stepford Wives with plenty of Macintosh product placement; and Matt Damon looking almost completely adult in the Bourne sequel.

Van Helsing photos by Frank Masi © 2004 Universal Studios.

Posted by OutsideFood at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2004

Super Size Me

You WOULD like fries with that

Super Size Me posterSuper Size Me
Starring: Morgan Spurlock
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
MPAA says nothing about this movie. There is much eating, one scene of gastric distress, and a few glimpses of a surgery.
Running time: 98 minutes
Release date: May 14
Seen at: Regal Arbor Cinema at Great Hills, an artsy house where the seats may actually have a bit too much leg room. I felt oddly exposed. Not to mention unable to slouch and rest my feet on the seat in front of me.

Outside Food: Odwalla Super Protein drink, and a peanut-butter-and-ginseng Balance bar. Once you get past the seaweedy texture, the swampy green Odwalla drink is quite tasty, but my healthbar was covered with chocolate! I couldn't choke it down.

Outside Food Critic attempts to become a Breatharian
Somewhere along the way, the Outside Food Critic lost interest in non-contextual food. Noshing outside food at the movies is great fun and, of course, only proper; but away from a movie, food has less and less appeal. Outside Food Critic would live on sunbeams and humid air (both in abundance here) and on the vibes from our degenerating environment, if not that Secret Agent Jim keeps showing up around lunchtime to invite me out to Wendy's, Whataburger, or Quizno's (they got a pepper baarrr).

Secret Agent Jim doesn't believe in Breatharianism. Frankly, neither does Outside Food Critic, and in fact I recently heard that Breatharianism's founder, Wiley Brooks, was spotted chowing at a Dunkin' Donuts (no, seriously). But some days, food just plain isn't appetising. It's possible Outside Food Critic has had too steady a diet of Wendy's, Whataburger, and Quizno's.

And, yet, even with all this living off air and tinfoil-hat philosophy, Outside Food Critic is still officially overweight.

Couldn't be the fast food, could it?

"Patient is embarking on a one-month McDonald's binge"
Super Size Me is, in a word, rivetting. The movie spends a lot of time around my old New York City haunts, but documentarian Morgan Spurlock spreads the love and the noshing to various locations across the country, interviewing doctors, nutritionists, corporate spokespeople, and Just Folks along the way. Spurlock is a charming, personable guy, is entertaining company, and is not easily embarrassed by bodily functions or the ribbing from his unseen cameraman. His nice girlfriend happens to be a gourmet vegan chef who doesn't even like it that Spurlock eats meat of any sort. In all, this was a brave endeavour.

The rules Spurlock set himself were as follows: for thirty days beginning in the month of February, he would eat only food available at McDonald's, drink only drinks available at McDonald's, three square meals a day. He would super-size his meals only if asked. He committed to eating everything on the menu at least once. Since statistics show that 60% of Americans get basically no exercise, Spurlock would limit his. Although New Yorkers commonly walk 4-5 miles a day (versus a national average of 5000 steps, and believe me, I noticed the difference after leaving New York), Spurlock would limit his own walking. He begins his culinary adventure on the McDonald's-heavy island of Manhattan, where there are four of the restaurants for every square mile. Spurlock's girlfriend is, in a word, dubious.

Thankfully, McDonald's also sells water.

A cardiologist, gastroenterologist, and GP provided the medical supervision, and a chi-chi nutritionist monitored general progress. Her first bit of advice: For a man of Spurlock's 6'2" and 185.5 pounds (188cm, 84.1kg), his recommended daily caloric intake is 2500 calories. On his new fast-food diet, he will end up consuming 5000 calories a day.

Spurlock's general health was "outstanding," his cholesterol levels low; the doctors' predictions were mild. The body is extraordinarily adaptable, they assure us all, and the kidneys and liver will ramp up to handle excess sugar and fat. Spurlock should be more than up to the task.

Within five days, he gained nearly 10 pounds.

And then things get interesting.

Inflated statistics?
The statistics seem grim: 60% of Americans are obese, and 400,000 deaths per year are attributed to weight-related illnesses. However, I seem to recall that this latest obsession with how oversized America is flared up in the aftermath of new guidelines for what constitutes "overweight" and "obese."

Women who some circles call "fan size" can be large and beautiful and sexy and confident, just as much as they are stereotyped as unhealthy and odd. It can be easy to forget, while inundated with media images, that there are cultures, even within the United States, where a larger weight is considered beneficial, or a sign of prosperity, or a symbol of great beauty; particularly in places where the average physiology simply naturally puts on more weight than is acceptable in the Keira Knightley-adoring parts of society.

Full disclosure: I am 5'6-1/4" (about 168 cm) and currently weigh, according to the scale in Secret Agent Jim's kitchen, 165 pounds (about 75 kg), and would do just about anything to get rid of the newly acquired fat over my stomach, including (gasp!) exercise. When I moved to this land of heat too intense for walking, where people drive their cars around the corner to the supermarket, I put on 45 pounds (all right, part of it was due to an illness, but still—two words: Tex Mex). According to a dot-gov Body Mass Index Calculator, I am currently at the high end of overweight. All that weight is muscle mass from fencing! I can say this, because you can't see me.

I know this weight gain is normal for my family background and age. On the other hand, I wish I hadn't eaten so much fast food.

"Brand imprinting for later actuation in life"
That's what cigarette companies have been known to call the marketing of harmless products (candy, for example), to children. It's like marketing any other product—just get the company logo implanted at the back of the mind, so that, at some later date, like a line of little ducks the consumers reach for your product.

Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's, and snackfood purveyors are on the list of Super Size Me's culprits. But McDonald's bears the brunt because of its high profile (one indelible image: an arrow pointing to an in-hospital McDonald's, the same colour and side-by-side with the sign pointing toward Emergency) and because of how it targets children: cartoons and clowns, play areas, originating the Happy Meal and its must-have toys. Of course, just about every other fast-food restaurant snaps at the chance to feature a tie-in to the latest children's movie. The effect of Super Size Me on McDonald's recent changes in offerings can only be speculated on; Spurlock was unsuccessful after multiple attempts to get rebuttal from McDonald's corporate heads or even to get a reply from its "Director of Corporate Communications and Social Responsibility."

I distinctly remember my first trip to McDonald's, my love affair with the hamburger's tiny diced onions and the excitement of the exotic addition of mustard on the burgers in Miami. Trips to McDonald's were rare treats when I was young. I admit to a sense of warm-fuzzy nostalgia when I head into the drive-through lane. Imprinting works.

TIP #1: Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT eat the McNuggets.

The documentary does not lose sight of the issue of personal versus corporate responsibility, but no one is off the hook here. On his road trip, Spurlock interviews men and women and kids from various classes of society about their fast-food habits. He shares a meal with a "Big Mac enthusiast" who eats the burgers every day. There's also the woman from France Spurlock seems to have bumped into outside a McDonald's in Manhattan's Chinatown, who expresses alarm at the size of a "small" drink in the US but musters only a weary smile at the American pastime of suing.

He spends some time with Professor John Banzahf, who first successfully sued cigarette companies and whose motto was "sue the bastards," and briefly interviews the extremely unapologetic attorney Samuel Hirsch.

There are a few scattered spots where the documentary's message is blurred. A teenage girl expresses her exasperation with the unrealistic extremes young women are meant to aspire to, as her face is covered with a series of images of slender, skinny, and emaciated models. He interviews a fairly tall, overweight fourteen-year-old girl who has just met Jared "lost 235 pounds eating Subway" Fogel—the anti-Spurlock, as it were. She has no idea how to manage her own weight, and knows only she can't afford to do it by eating Subway. We are also told that her family has had a history of extreme weight problems dating from well before the era of the fast-food joint. These are interesting tidbits, but not actually much in the way of counterbalance.

TIP #2: Guys, note—Spurlock's pretty girlfriend says the sex is just not as good as when he was on a healthy diet, and Spurlock concurs.

Alex and MorganWatch, as Spurlock's delight on kissing his first double quarter pounder with cheese turns to horror, when eating an entire McDinner becomes an exhausting workout for someone unused to the cuisine. Thrill, when, after 47 minutes of struggling, he cannot keep his first supersized meal down. This produced fewer gasps in the audience than the revelations about how many government-defined "portions" are in a single Big Mac and just how much soda is in a Big Gulp. How many of us notice those eight extra ounces of watered down cherry coke for an extra 25 cents when the packaging is so pretty, cheap, and convenient? No one who sees Super Size Me is likely to forget.

Spurlock's diet causes drastic results (who is surprised?). By the end of the month his organs do show some signs of beginning to adjust to the strain of this massive sugar (a pound a day) and fat intake. The body, as Spurlock's doctors initially assured him, can be forced to adapt; but... why? Along the way, Spurlock suffers from addiction-like cravings, mood swings, twenty-five pounds of weight gain, striking increase in cholesterol level, and is in danger of becoming an 18th-century bewigged and waistcoat-wearing old rich guy—I mean, is at risk for gout. His liver, says the GP on day 18, is sick. By day 21, the GP has changed his assessment to "obscene."

But, once he gets used to the menu, Spurlock makes one point clear: This food tastes good.

"Local Specialty"
In Texas, Spurlock sampled the Texas Homestyle Meal and the newly introduced McGriddle sandwich, a breakfast offering with the syrup already cooked in. Texas was home to five of the fifteen "heaviest" cities in the United States (later increasing to eight of the top fifteen) and, when he visited it, Houston was at the uncoveted number-one spot. The reaction of the Texas audience in the theatre moved on from shock over the Big Gulp to uneasy abashment.

The documentary looks beyond McDonald's to the larger issues of how adults eat and how they feed the next generation. Public school lunches are provided by the lowest bidders, with mottoes such as "[Children] will learn to make the right choices." Cafeterias offer fries, chips, candy bars, and sugar-water lemonade but offer no direction to the kids on the lunchlines. Other schools receive government-supplied reconstituted meals, some individual lunches weighing in at 1196 calories. It was a relief to see the fresh food prepared at one alternative school, which found that the behaviour of its "troubled" teens improved when their diet improved.

Ah, yet more nostalgia. I remember when a soda machine was installed in my little (private) school. It seemed so unnatural, hulking and humming in a vague mist under a flight of stairs by the first-grade classroom (much easier access for the 5-to-10 year olds than for the junior high and high schoolers). Its shiny products should have been more appealing than the little pints of milk, chocolate milk, and watery sugary orange (colour, not fruit content) drink served in the cafeteria (even farther a jaunt for the high school kids than to the soda machine). But something felt wrong about its very presence.

Not that it mattered much to the older kids. My friends and I went out for pizza and root beer every day. The other clique walked the extra two blocks to McDonald's.

TIP #3: Do NOT eat the McGriddle sandwich; it's pure sugar and fat. The salads can be just as over-sugared, and are fattier than a Big Mac, if you add the dressing.

For the adult consumer, "The solution lies in good education," says the spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA). GMA is the lobbying body for the product lines that decorate supermarket shelves, for companies with names like Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo (zombies!), Nestle, Sara Lee (nobody doesn't like her), and Smucker; with products from Cheetos to Cheerios and Froot Loops to Fritos. But who is providing that good education? Not, in any significant way, the lobbyists, nor the various McDonald's restaurants Spurlock searched for information.

Each time the GMA logo appears you can practically hear the Imperial March from Star Wars. Don't blame us, explains the GMA; praise us for providing an "affordable abundance of food." "Affordable abundance of food" is their go-to line. As an example from a different controversy: the GMA has balked at and campaigned against telling consumers when they are being offered genetically modified foods. The arguments consistently boil down to: We provide an abundance of food such as the world has never known, and if we give people the choice of not buying genetically modified products, profits will suffer. The arrogance of their stance has been expressed clearly, and in so many words: They have decided there is no harm done by their products, so it doesn't actually matter whether or not anyone wishes to choose not to eat it; in fact, consumers should not be given that choice, as they are too misguided to be allowed to threaten the bottom line. That issue disturbs me so thoroughly, I become nearly incoherent trying to discuss it.

Imagine my apoplexy when nearly the exact same wording is heard here. It is nice to hear the spokesman say, "We're part of the problem." He follows it up with, "And we need to be part of the solution." But beyond that, in this documentary we hear only the tired line about the masses being educated to make their own healthy choices, through mysterious and unspecified and unimplemented ways that are clearly outweighed by the abundance of pre-processed-food advertising.

TIP #4: Stop drinking soda! OMG! Stop now! Do you know what's in that stuff?

As Morgan Spurlock comes to enjoy his McMeals more and more, he must also acknowledge junk food's effect on mood. The experience of eating becomes not so much about taste and texture as its effect directly on receptors in the brain. An opiate of the masses has never looked so delicious. Yummy.

Have I mentioned yet, that this food tastes good?

Don't try this at home.
Super Size Me touches on many other aspects of life in a fast-food, sedentary world, packing quite a lot into its non-super-sized hour and a half. A gastric bypass surgery is presented as a sort of cautionary tale, but it can be quite beneficial any time it's pursued for the right reasons. Don't get the impression this is a gloomy movie—Spurlock is good-natured and good-humoured. I won't even go into the freaky art by Ron English or the freaky GW Bush thing (don't worry, it's not political, just... freaky). And I won't spoil the revelations at the very end of the movie, except to say eating is easier than detoxing.

While typing up this review, I heard approximately a kabillion commercials for ice cream, fast food, snack foods, and candy. But that's only a rough estimate.

To See or Not to See? TIP #5: See this movie.

Posted by OutsideFood at 09:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Thank goodness, it's not just me.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and a glimpse or two of Alan Rickman
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, who is not Chris Columbus
Based on the book by J. K. Rowling.
MPAA says: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language. Parents note: something extremely gruesome appears to happen, offscreen, to a nice animal. And Ron has a potty mouth. An English potty mouth, but still.
Running time: 139 minutes
Release date: June 4, 2004

Seen at: Regal Gateway Stadium 16, Austin, on opening day; in theatre 16, where the seats are cramped and apparently spaced for people with extremely short legs. No matter how I twisted, my knees were pressed hard against the seat in front of me.
Outside Food: Jelly beans, and the hearts of small children. No, not really. Probably.
Product placement: All things Potter-related, from candy to video games. If they make a mockup of that sekrit map, I'm buying it.

To See or Not to See?

To quote (or possibly paraphrase) Hermione when Harry says it all makes sense: "No, not really."

Hermione apparently doesn't buy the final twist as explained by Harry, but I suppose the truth of it will be for the audience to discover in the next movie. Then again, the audience for the next movie has probably already read the next book. And the next one. The scattershot plot may even make sense to them.

I'll start this review with the most important question for the non-Harry Potter fan, the assessment I usually leave for the end of the review. Unless you're taking a child through whose eyes you can watch the caperings, don't bother. Although the movie comes in under two-and-a-half hours, it feels much longer, as the plot loses its cohesion, as exposition is followed by non sequiturs, as characters bounce from one supposedly deeply felt emotion to another. The young actors, at least, are much better at their craft than they were in the first movie. The adult actors do their best with a script that is at times illogical. For the non-fan, this is a long haul with only sporadic rewards.

Harry Potter for by the uninitiated

Wanted PosterRecently, I was in a minivan with six Harry Potter fans, and the conversation turned to fanaticism of the religious sort, and how intractable a certain type of evangelist can be, how for some people every dialogue will revolve around their unquestioning faith in their religion and their eagerness to convert. Then the subject turned to Harry Potter. I'll let you guess how things went from there.

Yes, I've tried to read the books. No, I don't care for them; after years in children's book publishing, I've read similar stories of better quality, and other than curiosity there's no reason for me to slog through something I'm not enjoying. More power to those who do enjoy the world the author has created. I can't fault them; I liked Timeline. I love The Rat Patrol. I dare not cast too many stones.

Clearly, something can be of only fair quality or even poorly crafted and still have an immense following who gain great pleasure from it (Friends, anyone?). As long as something in it resonates with the reader or viewer, that's all that matters. We can agree to disagree on whether or not Harry Potter (novels or films) are well crafted. Not that I'm ever going to get into a conversation with a carful of fans again. That was brutal.

Sitting through the movie itself is brutal for non-fans. If you watch it with an enthusiastic child, you may just enjoy yourself, and you may be distracted from the length if you have a child asking "what happened?" "why did that happen?" every few minutes, as the cute and merrily puzzled little girl sitting next to me in her father's lap did. The rows in front of me began swaying like octopus arms around mid-movie as the kids began squirming mightily, but the audience soon settled back into the movie. The young audience remained determined to see their heroes through to the end.

This is a movie for fans only, and there are certainly more than enough fans out there to keep its box-office aloft.

hp_adolescence.jpgWhat's it all about, then?

It's Harry's third year at Hogwarts School, and he learns that convicted murderer Sirius Black has escaped the infamous Azkaban prison and is coming after Harry next. Wraithlike Dementors, skeletal beings in tattered ash-coloured robes, swirl about Hogwarts in search of Sirius Black, threatening the life of anyone who incidentally blunders into their path. In the meantime, Harry must deal with old friends and old enemies, the vagaries of the Hogwarts faculty, and general teenage angst.

I've already written a brief summary of the film, which you might want to peruse. I'll wait.

Back? Did you read the summary? That's more or less the movie, right there. If the summary seems disjointed, it's because I couldn't make out the logic of the plot even after one of the characters spent several minutes explaining it in a jumbled scene of exposition and shifting characterisation. Here is that scene in more detail (but beware spoilers):

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe): I hate Sirius Black with a burning passion, particularly since it's totally skanky for my godfather to have betrayed my parents.
Sirius Black (Gary Oldman): As you know, Harry, I am evil and will kill you.
R. J. Lupin (David Thewlis): Indeed, Harry, he is evil, but I, your weird new teacher, will save you.
Harry: Thanks, man.
Lupin: Pysch! I am evil, too, and will kill you, Harry. By the way, I quite like you, Sirius.
Sirius: Thank you, I'm rather fond of you, too. (They hug in a somewhat suggestive manner.)
Lupin: Now, Harry, allow me to explain our evil before you die.
Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, severely underused): (appearing suddenly) I'll save you from this evil, Harry.
Harry: (whallops the living daylights out of Snape with his wand of great power, turns to the others) Do go on.
Lupin: As it turns out, Sirius and I are rather nice fellows, Sirius was framed, and this third person over there is the evil one. Allow us to explain the entire backstory.
Third Person: I'm not evil. Allow me to explain an alternative backstory.
Sirius: You are too evil!
Third Person: No way!
Lupin: Way!
Harry: Now that I've heard you exposit, I entirely love you, Sirius, particularly because you're my godfather. I want to live with you forever.
Sirius: Flattered, but I'm still a wanted and convicted criminal, so I'll be hiding out, clearing my name, and looking into some dental care.

hp_plot.jpgI do not exaggerate. Well, not much. There's a ludicrously abrupt switch from "We are evil; therefore, die, Harry!" to "Actually, what we meant was, we are good, and someone else is bad." Harry accordingly switches from the over-the-top emotions of "I will go to great lengths to show my utter hatred of Sirius" to "Sirius is the best role model ever!" I waggle an irritated finger at director Alfonso Cuarón, who may have been too enchanted with making the scenery look pretty to remember the humans.

When I analyse and reanalyse the scene, it sort of makes sense, if one re-interprets the menacing and threatening as simply trying to get Harry to sit still and listen—which they could have gotten him to do by, oh, just telling him the truth from the start instead of couching everything in moustachio-twirling. Secret Agent Jim, who has read this book, tells me the scene plays out much the same way in the novel.

This may be one of those instances where you really had to be there. You have to be a fan, and you have to have read the book, so that you can simply sit back and let the experience of being inside the pages wash over you.

Being inside Hogwarts

hp_thecat.jpg(or, Outside Food Critic says something nice about a Harry Potter movie!)

There's quite a lot to admire in the production design. Although the matte paintings often look as cartoonish as some of the books' cover art and blend awkwardly into the "real" world, otherwise the design is wondrously rich. The spooky opening of the movie sets a dark, sinister mood, and many individual shots are exquisite. One scene in particular stands out: The Nazgul-like Dementors halt the children's train en route to Hogwarts; Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), places his hand on the window and the camera pulls back to show the train perched high on a bridge, its lights blinking out from car to car and its windows growing opaque with an uncanny Dementor-driven frost, until only Ron's pale, lonely palm is visible.... Doesn't get much eerier than that. Shades of Hitchcock!

I wouldn't mind wandering around Hogwarts and its hills and halls for a week or two (except for the carnivorous tree thing, and the risk of running into Hermione's plug-ugly cat). A hippogriff, tamed and ridden by Harry et. al., fares poorly in some of its scenes as an animatronic animal, but is smoothly realised in the CG scenes, with a clever blend of birdlike and horselike mannerisms.

hp_emmas.jpgThe huge pendulum swinging through the hallways of Hogwarts reinforces hints about a key mystery in the movie, and a fortune-telling classroom is all funky bohemian charm. The animated paintings in the dormitory stairwell swell to bursting with background detail and become characters in their own right, and (another sort of adornment) darned if those redhaired twins (Oliver & James Phelps) aren't turning out to be quite the ravishing duo in an English-rock-group way. Other stand-out details: the animated wanted poster seen in all the trailers and—perhaps the best bit of "magic" in the entire film—a map that shows the footprints of people moving through its parchment corridors.

Phantom Edit, anyone?

Nonsense dialogue and plot holes and logic tears come close to sinking the movie, but the film trudges ahead until it eventually becomes something akin to clever. The magic macguffin that saves the day is hinted at throughout, and when it is finally used, the tick-tock soundtrack is a nice touch. When we're shown clues to Lupin's affliction, we're immediately distracted, cleverly, by focussing on Harry.

hp_lines.jpgOn the other hand, while little set pieces like a book on monsters that's a monster itself are cleverly brought to life, these bits tend to go on far longer than they can hold the audience's interest, and Harry spends much of the early part of the film looking soulfully at his reflection while the seconds and minutes tick by. The first half hour or more is a series of such disjointed bits strung together until finally a plot, of a sort, attempts to emerge, punctuated by musical clues to let the audience know when the dialogue is both amusing and amusingly delivered. I'm giving the movie a pass on what at first seemed to be a scene about how fat people are so fat-bad, because, in all fairness, the movie steps away from making a broad generalisation.

One unforgiveable failing: Alan Rickman, who in black Snape robes and inky Snape hair and with his face drawn downward by gravitas is the most striking visual in the film next to the computer-generated hippogriff, is terribly, terribly underused.

Three little maids from school Something about Harry

Harry can be a rude little snit, but the faculty adore him. Better he have flaws than be perfect, but in spite of some behavioural problems, he's such a teacher's pet, no wonder his nemesis, ice-blond Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), is so irritated. Apparently, moreso in this movie than in the book, there's nothing Harry can't do. One wonders why he even needs to go to school, other than to escape the headache-inducing handheld camera wobbling around his house.

Sidekick Ron has quite the potty mouth. Am I the only person disturbed by a thirteen-year-old exclaiming "Bloody hell!" at every opportunity? While I'm asking questions: Am I the only person who found that clown in the jack-in-the-box more sinister than a Dementor? Clowns are skeery! And why can't anyone ever hear Harry's laboured panting when he's under his invisibility cloak? Non-fans want to know!

As mentioned earlier, the young actors have improved immensely. They aren't Dame Judi and Sir Derek yet, but they are believable and mostly charming. Rupert Grint delivers Ron's punchlines with punch, at least until the script reduces him to saying "Bloody hell" every other line, and his character-actor face is mobile and expressive. Emma Watson's Hermione feels much more natural. Daniel Radcliffe doesn't telegraph Harry's every line as in the first film, but his emotions are rather broadly portrayed—horror, vehemence, all to the extreme, then his reversal into devotion, love, and even a bit of self-delusion. Come to think of it, he's thirteen, and all boys are a bit broad and deluded at that age. Maybe we should just blame Harry on hormones. (Speaking of age, and not to ruin a plot twist, but does this mean Hermione is actually fourteen now? How in the world is she going to put up with those immature boys now?) The other young actors in the student body are merely adequate, unfortunately, and occasionally even painful in their line delivery.

Dawn French tears up the screen (in a good way) with her short scenes as the singing fat lady in a painting; her husband Lenny Henry lends his voice to a wise-cracking shrunken head; and Emma Thompson is appropriately featherbrained as divination professor Sybil Trelawney. Michael Gambon's Dumbledore comes across as thoroughly delighted with the world, and he's a delight to watch. Many names were brought up in speculation to replace the late Richard Harris, and although I might have enjoyed seeing, oh, Gary Raymond in the role (not that I'm biased or anything), Gambon fits comfortably into his robes and bead-decorated beard. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman play off each other remarkably well in their Scene of Jumbled Exposition. Thewlis exudes pathos and dignity in his final scene, bringing just the right meaning to the thinly veiled metaphor.

hp_thewlis.jpgThank goodness, it's not just me.

I had to ask around about the Thinly Veiled Metaphor and my reading of the bigotry against Lupin and "people like [him]" teaching presumably impressionable young students. It could be the skill with which Thewlis delivers his lines and the pain crisscrossing his scarred and weary face, but it could also be that the book itself hit just the right note. If so, I applaud Rowling for handling the subject so well. In this case, thinly veiled metaphor was just what was needed.

The End

The credits are long. Extremely long. They are prettily animated over Harry's magical map, with some cute touches here and there (keep an eye out for "The Owlery" on the righthand side) and a minor Easter Egg at the very end—not an additional scene, just a brief voiceover. If you sit through the credits you can hear the entire "Something Wicked This Way Comes" chorale, which I'll admit I enjoyed.

Pet peeve:

Book of Monster's Repair Shop, on the map. Mind your apostrophes! Has Hogwarts no English Department?

hp_hippogriff.jpgTo See or Not to See? revisited

If you're a Harry Potter fan, haven't you already seen this movie? You may find some of it lacking and some of it disappointing; and you may fidget during the long stretch around 90-minutes in; but you should enjoy wandering around the expanded vision of Hogwarts and you won't miss anything by taking breaks to stretch your legs or powder your nose or have a nap or do the entire NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle. It's great fun to watch the hippogriff fuss with its feathers.

If you're not a Harry Potter fan, I doubt this will convert you to the true faith. It's an awful lot of movie to sit through just for a hippogriff, a pretty map, and a pendulum.

As Harry would say, Mischief Managed.

Posted by OutsideFood at 06:05 PM | Comments (1)

June 05, 2004

Hellboy: in brief

Great big booms, great big squids, clockwork cyborg Nazis, and kittens! Hellboy knows when to tug the heartstrings and when to pull your leg, and remembers to have fun. It's thin on plot but heavy with attitude, looks pretty, and Ron Perlman is quite convincing as a big red devil. I recommend this one while it's still on the big screen, for actiony summer fluff.

Posted by OutsideFood at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2004

Harry Potter & the End of the World

So, there you are, thinking to yourself, I'm not a Harry Potter fan. Is there any reason at all for me to see this movie? Until the full review is ready, here's a summary so you can avoid the theatre but still nod knowledgeably as your Harry-Potter-fan friends rhapsodise, followed up by brief commentary on The Day After Tomorrow, so you can then hide in your survival shelter.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and a glimpse or two of Alan Rickman
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, who is not Chris Columbus
MPAA says: PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language
Running time: 139 minutes
Release date: June 4, 2004

Harry's third year at Hogwarts, during which he is menaced by Sirius Black, escapee from Wretchedly Evil Wizards Prison, lasts approximately as long as the Trojan War, and goes something like this:

Harry, adolescent wizard: Sucks to be on vacation from school. Oh, good, time to go back to school.
Nazgul: Garrgh.
Harry: (faints)
Dumbledore: I've inherited the role of headmaster.
Lupin: I'm your new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. Everything about me is suspicious.
Snape: (stalks in, glowers)
Outside Food Critic: Whee! Alan Rickman! In black!
Hagrid: (is big)
Malfoy: (is whining git)
Lady in painting: (is played by Dawn French)
Hippogriff in CG: (is seriously cool)
Hippogriff in animatronics: (is seriously lame)
Sekrit map: (is pretty)
Orlando Bloom: (is not in this movie, but is seriously pretty)
All Hell: (breaks loose)
Harry: Andway apzay! (miracle occurs)
Ron: Bloody hell!
Nazgul: Garrrgh.
Lupin: My deep dark secret is both obvious and a thinly veiled metaphor.
Sirius Black: (explains plot)
Outside Food Critic: (looks for someone to ask whether there are any... cousins in this movie)
Ron: Bloody hell!
Snape: (glowers)
Outside Food Critic: whee!
Nazgul: Garrrrrgh! Isn't anyone paying attention?
Harry: Akefay atinlay! (miracle occurs)
Ron: Bloody hell!
Hermione: (saves day)
Harry: (flies broom into camera)
Credits: (are pretty, but extremely long, with a minor Easter Egg at the end and a kind of nifty bit if you keep an eye out for "the Owlery")
Box office: (rakes in the moolah)

If my summary seems disjointed, it's because I couldn't make out the logic of the plot even after one of the characters spent several minutes explaining it.

To quote (or possibly paraphrase) Hermione when Harry says it all makes sense: "No, not really."

The Day After Tomorrow
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Ian Holm, Dash Mihok, three of the Four Horsemen, a cute dog, and a pack of badly animated wolves
Director: Roland Emmerich
MPAA says: PG-13 for intense situations of peril
Running time: 89 minutes
Release date: May 28, 2004
Product placements: Wendy's and the Weather Channel (seriously)

The end of the world goes something like this:

First half of movie: All hell breaks loose, and it looks fabulous.
Second half of movie: People are cold.

Oh, and Canada is eaten by a hurricane. Woe, Canada.

Posted by OutsideFood at 11:59 PM | Comments (28)

Outside Food goes forth

I'm on my way out to the theatre, where I will attempt to see The Day After Harry Van Helsing, if I can coordinate movie times around the various sold-out Harry Potter screenings.

My secret stash of food is packed, my notebook and pens are ready. I may be some time.

Tomorrow, if I survive, Hellboy. And I might even dig out my notes on Ella, Enchanted... because I know you're all on the edge of your seats....
Posted by OutsideFood at 04:24 PM | Comments (1)