Thursday, July 28, 2011

Harry Potter's Final Spell

Three and a half stars

‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2’ is a fitting finale to the most profitable film series in history. For the last fifteen years, J.K. Rowling has cast something of a spell on the world’s readers, hooking them on her magical stories of a boy who discovers he’s a wizard. Well, Hogwarts looks much different than it did way back in 2001, where we first met the young Daniel Radcliff, as a lonely little orphan living under the staircase of his wicked aunt and uncle’s house. Since then, Harry and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have left innocence, as they come face to face with the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The last act in the ‘Harry Potter’ saga starts as Harry is on the run with his two friends. He is coming closer and closer to the big showdown with Voldemort. Steve Kloves’s script raps up J.K. Rowling’s epic tale, and gives good weight to the dialogue and the danger lurking in the magical world Rowling has created.

Danger lurks at each door, and the film gets closer and closer to the big battle with the evil wizard Voldemort. Harry is determined to get the Horcruxes, which are explained as parts of Voldemort’s soul. The scenery is dark this time, and the three friends run through different locations as they finally arrive back to Hogwarts. When they arrive back to Hogwarts, the school doesn’t look sunny and magical anymore. It looks dark, and the new headmaster is Snape (Alan Rickman). There’s also the usual company of actors who have populated this series. Harry Potter has become something of a place for good British actors to have scenes. Many distinguished British actors have worked in the Harry Potter series, and many of them make appearances here. Probably, though, the standout here among the company of the supporting actors is Alan Rickman. He does a great job playing Snape, and I won’t give away what happens with Snape, though I suspect most of the people in the audience have read the books. So, don’t put the spoiler police on me. Alan Rickman and even Ralph Fiennes as the evil Voldemort deserve Oscar consideration.

Bellatrix Lestrange, Rubeus Hagrid, Professor Dumbledore, Ollivander, Lucius Malfoy, Sirius Black, Severus Snape, Remus Lupin and Prof. Minerva McGonagall all shield Hogwarts from the evil of Lord Voltemort. Hogwarts is placed under a magical shield from the armies of Voldemort. Ralph Fiennes makes Voltemort evil. Screenwriter Steve Kloves has a big task to tie up all the loose ends and includes many scenes and speeches. Hogwarts is reduced to ashes and ruins as the kids run through the battles and evil sorcery. It’s leading up to a big confrontation. There are many themes about death and sacrifice and standing up to evil.

This is a wonderfully shot film, though it is dark and dealy. The series has remained faithful to J.K. Rowling’s original idea, though the tones of the books and films have grown darker since the series has progressed. I suspect though that’s one of the reasons the series has been so successful. ‘Harry Potter’ always remains good at heart, the tone of the series and films deals with issues of growing up and Harry facing certain death. The film is well staged, and the dialogue is good. Harry Potter and his friends have captivated a whole generation of kids to pick up a book. It’s a mixed blessing in a way for us writers. On one hand, she has set the bar pretty high as far as storytelling goes, but we are grateful to see a book become this big of a thing. I don’t think my forthcoming novel will sell as many copies. The last scene of the film will make those who love ‘Harry Potter’ tear up. It also leaves room for a squeal, though J.K. Rowling has said she wouldn’t write one. Hopefully, the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter will continue to read long after their favorite boy wizard has moved on with his life. The last scene of ‘Harry Potter’, I won’t give it away. I never give away endings, though I suspect you know this one. Let’s just say that this is the final class at Hogwarts for those too old to attend, now. Class dismissed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Write A Review

One of the most marketable things for a journalist to do is become a reviewer. It’s a safe bet that everyone likes movies, is looking for a good book to read and when not feeling up to a book, have a television set hanging around. Though, that’s the traditional reviewers. In 2004, Dan Neil received a Pulitzer Prize for writing reviews of automobiles. This year, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism was an art critic for the Boston Globe. Me, I’m a film critic, who occasionally writes a book review (and poor attempts at novels) but until then, I’m a film critic. I was talking with my father about the idea that my reviews might be syndicated to newspapers one day. I said that it’s a safe thing to syndicate to newspapers, because everyone likes movies. People can debate columnists like George Will, but no one really can debate Roger Ebert. You might disagree with a review of his, but you don’t walk away from a review so angry that you want a bottle of gin. If you don’t believe, just look at how many people are going to go see the new Harry Potter film. It’s a weird thing that film has survived, I suppose. We have television, books, computers, cell phones, laptops, and information pills we can take that provide us with everything we need to know as we sit with our morning coffee preparing for the day (well, ok, maybe we don’t have that, yet). Anyway, as I was saying, movie reviews are a safe bet. As long as there are movie theaters, there will be reviewers. I like to think of what I do as a consumer guide. If you want to be a critic, too, I suggest these following tips.

1) Pick a topic- You need to pick a topic. This is probably the easiest part. What do you want your column to be about? Movies? Books? Music? Television? Or maybe you don’t want to write about mainstream stuff like that. There’s nothing wrong with being an art critic or a restaurant critic. Though, you’re more likely to get a national audience if you’re reviewing, say, movies, you can still have a good job reviewing local restaurants. Jonathan Gold, of the LA Weekly, writes a column about local restaurants in Los Angeles, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for that.

2) Tone- One of the dangers of criticisms is becoming a snob, but I’ll cover that in the next tip. Let me start by talking about the tone of your review. Your tone shouldn’t be condescending, and as a critic, there’s always a danger to that. Know what you are reviewing. If you are reviewing film, know that you’re not reviewing a political scandal. Your tone should be conversational, and shouldn’t talk above the heads of your audience. You should have a tone that conveys an ongoing conversation about the film or whatever you choose to review. Remember, you are the guide through your review, and you shouldn’t be lecturing your audience. You should be talking to them.

3) Don’t be a snob-You should be able to like both ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Tree of Life’. I’m not saying you should be a critic who likes everything but show your audience that you are someone who can see the value in both entertainment and thought-provoking art pictures. Also, if you don’t like a film, give reasons that make sense beyond I was bored. If a kids film has a bad message for children, than warn your audience about that. If the picture is just a cute kids picture, and is somewhat harmless, than you sound like a snob if you write up a bashing of it. For example, in my review of ‘Cars 2’, I run the risk of sounding like a snob because I didn’t like a Pixar picture meant for children. It’s a picture about talking cars, for crying out loud. Not a biography of Gandhi. So, I explain early that while I didn’t like the picture, I take no enjoyment in writing up a bad review of a kid’s film, unless the film has a bad message for children. Though, you probably do know more about film than the person reading the review, don’t make them feel like you are some professor lecturing to them. You should make them feel that you, too, are a normal guy going to the theater. Though, you also want them to know that your opinion is informed. It’s a balancing act.

4) Make yourself trusted- It doesn’t hurt to put into the review things that show you know what you are talking about. You might have never picked up a camera to make a movie or started a draft of your own novel, so that’s a common thing lobbied against reviewers. What do they know? Well, I know a couple things. For example, I know something about film history, which I try to put into the review. I also know something about film news, the cast, the filmmakers and I try to put that information into the review while trying not to knock the head of my reader over with it. Roger Ebert does this well. Another thing I try to do in a review is give the reader some kind of suggestion of something else they could do instead of watch a film that’s not very good. Like for example, say you have a daughter who’s around eight, and she wants to see a movie called ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’, and it’s a concert film about the newest teen sensation, Justin Biber. While I think Bieber is harmless, I do think there are better ways for your daughter to spend her two hours instead of some teen marketing campaign that tells her she should have a crush on the latest version of the Jonas Brothers. I try to make a better suggestion for the parent who wants to show their daughter something better than a movie about girls obsessed with Justin Bieber. I suggest they keep their daughter at home, and rent out ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, which happens to be on DVD, and is a wonderful animated feature from Japan (but trust me, Disney released it dubbed so your daughter doesn’t have to read sub-titles) about a young girl who happens to be a witch. She goes off on her own and comes of age. That may sound silly, but let give you a new way to think about it. Kiki is a strong female character. There, I just saved you 8 bucks, 2 mind-numbing hours and your daughter has just met a better role model.

5) Know what you are writing- You’re writing a review of a film or a book or whatever topic you choose to write about. So, your language should reflect what you are writing. You should keep the tone light if it’s a comedy or a fantasy adventure. You can get more serious if the film is a drama or a thought provoking piece of science fiction. That being said, your review is still a column. It should sound like one but also, it shouldn’t sound too much like one. One of the fun things about writing about a topic is that you spice up the language a bit with references. Take for example my review of ‘Paul’, where I end the review with the line ‘she knows a thing or two about fighting aliens.’ What political column could you end that with? And I mean actual aliens. Not illegal aliens. You should also be to the point, I feel. You’re writing a review. The person wants to know if they should see the movie or not. They don’t want to spend twenty minutes reading a review of a film. They want a break from the horror stories in the paper, by thinking about what movie they should see, or what car they should drive, or what art show they should see or what’s on TV tonight. You can provide a service by saving them money. Though, you also should show them you know what you are doing. You’re not trying to sway them to a political position or telling them which president to vote for.

6) Finally, remember, you are writing on something everyone can agree on. That’s the cool thing. While we might disagree on if a film is good or not, no one can deny we all like seeing them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Off The Grid Summer Reading

The iconic literary and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Philip Roth says that he has stopped reading fiction, altogether. I happen to believe that good fiction is still out there. I’m not going to be a prude and say that mainstream fiction isn’t good. I might make criticisms for a living, but I am by no means a snob. At least, I try not to be. That’s always the danger of professional criticism. For example, if Harry Potter and John Grisham are your homeboys, that’s fine. One thing that does annoy me about people’s reading habits is often they don’t look off the grid for some good reads. We see this often with summer reading lists. I mean, if you want to read popular novels that amount to soap operas, I have nothing against that. Whatever floats your boat is my motto when it comes to reading. At least you’re reading something. Though, I feel that supplementing that with some off the grid reading when you go to the beach isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps you might find the following suggestions for summer reading enriching, life affirming and thought provoking as have I over the years. Just because you’re reading on the beach doesn’t mean that your brain turns off. As I said, light reading is fine. I rather you read anything than stare at a phone, a laptop, texting, watching films on your cell phones or said computers (seriously, stop streaming movies. Go to a damn theater and pay the eight bucks. Jeez) but I digress. Hope these suggestions prove memorable reading experiences. Let me explain a bit how this reading list is going to work. It’s going to go from heavier reading to lighter reading. Let’s start with…

1. Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Recently, a picture was snapped of Harry Potter’s Emma Watson reading this book, or as my brother puts it: his future wife. Anyway, back to the book. ‘Perks of Being A Wallflower’ is one of America’s most banned books, because it is a YA novel that deals with sex, drugs, and suicide. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read. This one can be read by both adults and teenagers. I would suggest you buy your teenager this book instead of a ticket to see the most recent summer blockbuster. The story is a series of letters by a kid named Charlie addressed to someone. We don’t know who he is writing these letters to, but he does have a secret that we don’t know till the end of the book. At times shocking and at times, life affirming, this book has been one of the most beloved of my suggestions. Charlie is a depressed teenager who with the help of his two friends, experiences what it’s like growing up on the edge. Oh, yeah, the film is Emma Watson’s first project, post-Harry Potter.

2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a story of a nerd before the time it was cool to be a nerd. He starts out a slim, good looking kid that everyone thinks will go a long way. Such a good looking kid, they suggest he’ll be breaking hearts. But soon that all goes wrong, as he become overweight and obsessed with being the next J.R.R. Tolkien, writing his novels and becoming involved in nerd culture. Though, that’s not all the book is about. The book is also about his mother’s time in the Dominican Republic. His sister’s problems. His friend’s observations about him. It all accumulates into a story just as much about being different in America as it does about legacy, heritage and the culture that engulfs our lives.

3. Any book by Nick Hornby- the British master of light, fun books to read, he also makes memorable characters. Mostly known in the states for books that get made into American movies, like ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘About A Boy’, are something that are wonderful. Because Hornby doesn’t write big epics (like Oscar Woa) or life affirming dramas (like Perks), he instead writes about people and their lives. I don’t want to fill this list up with a ton of books that might depress you. Nick Hornby is funny, honest and writes books about people you might know. And as I try not to depress you too much, I move onto…

4. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. I suppose a lot of you are looking for something to read after Harry Potter, but probably don’t want to go through an ordeal with a villain as evil as Vodemort. You can read my review of ‘Percy Jackson’ on this blog, but let me summarize it for you in this article. Rich Riordan brings a funny wit to a story of a dysfunctional kid from New York City who discovers at a camp the son of a Greek God. He ends up going on adventures with his two friends as they fight evil and try to stop the Gods from starting another war. Ok, this sounds like Harry Potter, but so what? It’s a well written YA novel.

Hope you all have a good summer.