Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Harry Potter” (and the whatever stone) is one of the best films I have seen this year, and while this has been a dreadful year, it has also produced “Memento” and “AI.” In the most twisted of ironies, Uberdirector Spielberg chose to honor Kubrick with “AI” instead of cashing in with “Harry Potter,” and it may have been the wisest decision of his career. I feel that Spielberg could have ruined this film; more on this in a bit.

“Harry Potter” is based on a book, a popular book, which many (too many) people have read and bear stringent expectations. Other than pure money, the only reasons to convert such a novel into a film are to 1) broaden the appeal, especially for those who don’t read fiction (translation: men over the age of 16) and 2) show a forced vision to an audience, bringing to life (and sight) images which could only exist in the mind… and in a computer or on a sketch pad.

The key to success is simple: don’t mess it up. A director like Spielberg could have strayed too far from the novel, or more accurately, the borrowed, processed vision that J.K. Rowling has so daringly re-written for today’s generations. “Harry Potter,” as both successful novel and now film, is a wonderous, Velveeta-like smish-smashing of every childhood fantasy, fairy tale, folklore-myth-thing, and dream, creating a world that is both fantastical and gothic, surreal and yet grounded.

Another key to the story’s success is its unwillingness to bend from traditional Euro-myths and legends. The fact that every actor, every set, and every atom of the film is British is not some twisted culturalist facism by Rowling, but rather, an assurance that we will recognize the more fantastical aspects of the tale. To borrow from a close friend and colleage, I dare any of you to name a popular fairy tale, style, or character, that is purely and originally American-born. All of our favorite stories come from countries and cultures older than our own, and films like “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tap into the very images that graced many a bedtime story. “Harry Potter” does the same.

Let’s talk technical. Chris Columbus is a Spielberg-clone, and a damn good one… I like his films, and I even liked “Bicentennial Man.” Don’t get me wrong… Columbus is NOT that talented, but he’s solid enough in his vision and technicality to get all the elements on the film reel. And he does his job perfectly; he takes little true risk, and delivers in every place that counts. The score is wonderous, and unmistakably John Williams… while I reserve laud for composers such as Barry, Newton-Howard, and Zimmer for having tremendous range and ability, Williams is the very best at what he does. He is so good at it, in fact, that he has mastered the ability to be subtle (see: “Saving Private Ryan”) and to showboat (see: “Star Wars”). This film’s score is all showboat, all-riffs, all classical epic-movie-music gloating, and it is precisely what’s needed.

I also will toss props to the editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, for the film’s pacing is nearly flawless. The film runs for more than two hours, but you’ll never notice it. In fact, there’s little editing trickery… very few fades, no quick cut-ups, just damn good timing.

Several critics have complained that the film doesn’t last long enough. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to cram an entire book into a two hour movie. Many things are left implied and unspoken, simply because there isn’t enough time for it. When a film contains too much information to show, either details get left out (most films reiterate the same points repeatedly, explaining and justifying absolutely everything. Critics call this ‘strong, planned screenwriting’.) or the film contains a zillion edits and rocks by at 100 MPH, causing nausea, irritation, and possible blindness. Having said that — considering the latter part — I really liked Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” and I like anime too. For the kids, though, Harry Potter and its creative team have elected the former route.

As a result of that choice, some people and some critics feel the film is disjointed and incoherent. I’m sure the book fills in all the gaps nicely; I have not read it, and don’t intend to. If you are expecting a complete story from this film, with all the ends tied up, you will not get it. For time and monetary considerations, the film does cut corners, and while complete by its own means, feels more like a slice of life on a much larger timeline. A lot of the blanks are left unfilled for good reason.

The performances are outstanding across the board. The three principle characters, all kids, are more than sufficient for this type of film, and young Daniel Radcliffe has that kind of sick Haley Joel intensity and charisma that makes him likeable in all sorts of evil ways. I saw this guy on TRL (sigh, yes, I watch MTV because I like the eye candy) and he was being swamped by horny 16-year-old *N’Sync fans in towels. Poor guy. The supporting cast is a damned celebrity-Jeopardy spotting game of British celebrities, and more accurately, classically-trained actors. Everyone is in this thing, even some of the Pythons. The casual fan will never notice, but the filmgeeks out there are sure to spot those actors whom they cherish, but whose names they know not.

Why is the film so goodr I have no idea. J.K Rowling’s book probably gets the most credit. The casting directors did their job. Cinematography is a long orgasm. Steve Kloves’ script is faithful and doesn’t mess up, just like Columbus’ directing. Instinct tells me that the film is good because everyone knew what they were doing… a quick glance of the technical credits at the end confirms that everyone who’s anyone works on this project (even Henson has their fingerprints all over the place). Maybe I actually witnessed a true team effort for once, rather than one vision trying to overbear everyone elses. Of course, I would never mention this in a public review, but the fact that this film, at $125 million US dollars in budget, did NOT use name actors who cost lots of money, and did NOT use American unions for below-the-line crew… hmmm. That could mean that the people… as in, the labor… actually cost very little, and the great majority of the budget could be spent on effects, pre-production planning, and construction, so they could get it right…. hmmm. Hmmm indeed.

Yeah yeah yeah, so the effects are trippy terrific, the sets are great, the whole look of the film is just sizzlin’ in the best of ways. Look, it all comes down to this: no matter who you are, or what you do, I recommend the film. Big or small, large or tall, old or young, troll or goblin. You’ll dig it. You’ll lose yourself and become enchanted with the film, its characters, and its little nuances. Even its flaws. Will it change mankindr I certainly hope not. But gee, a movie that actually entertained me… it’s been a long time.

PS – I have been remarking to friends that a “hairy potter” is British slang for something quite interesting. Remember, these are the same people that would not release the “Austin Powers” sequel in their country with the word “shag” in the title. I think I’ll write a children’s book called Richard Rash: Private Investigator, and see how that tides over in the states.

Rating: A
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Waking Life

“I want it to sound rich and maybe almost a little wavy, due to being slightly out of tune,” he says. “I think it should be slightly detached.”

The musician hits it on the nail. For the next hour and a half, slightly detached and completely opulent, “Waking Life” rolls our mainstream cinematic perceptions into a tightly packed joint and smokes them, stopping to enjoy every inhalation along the way.

The film follows, literally, the erratic journey of a young man as he stumbles through a dreamlike world, never sure into what state of consciousness he is entering or what level of reality he will submerge from. His initial claustrophobia gives way to a lucid understanding that his grasp of this illogical state is actually empowering him to pursue an acute awareness of deeply complex philosophical and existential polemics that could never come to comprehension in his waking life. Slowly, he begins to realize the physical act of ‘waking’ offers little in terms of intellectual consciousness while the stirring to life in his dream truly wakes him up. As a little girl points out in the first scene, dream is destiny.

As a viewer, the enjoyment is twofold. Aurally, Linklater opens up a spectrum rarely used by filmmakers in this day of popcorn cinema by infusing each spoken word with cyclical significance. Characters don’t merely speak for the purpose of forward communication; they contemplate and analyze a myriad of universal truths and possibilities for the sake of exploring them later. In this way, the script moves forward by not moving at all, at times relishing its eclectic rhythm and broken narrative form. Suddenly, you are aware of sound in a completely new way – each syllable has a color of its own, each word its own shape.

This is the second and perhaps more important outcome of experiencing “Waking Life.” Much like the mystified protagonist of the film, the viewer is forced to re-negotiate how s/he experiences the aesthetic before them, be it life, dream or a moving picture. From its bold use of rotoscopic animation, which perfectly creates that on-the-fence reality (it looks real and fake at the same time), to its insistence on visual inconsistencies (objects change shape and color at will), the universe of “Waking Life” is one you haven’t been to before. This makes it a unique experience at a time when experiencing films has largely depreciated into formulaic crud.

“Waking Life” brings Linklater back to his roots. Since “Slacker,” the Austin auteur has stumbled from pothead piece (“Dazed and Confused”) to mainstream drivel (“Before Sunrise”), but Waking puts all the pieces back together. Free from cinematic constraints, both in sight and sound, “Waking Life” manages to float by slightly detached and completely out of tune, and the result is one hell of a trip.

Before you ask, let me touch briefly on the weed-worthiness of the film. Stoners will find this as compelling a toke-trip as “2001” or “Wizard of Oz” but whereas those films get better with pot, “Waking Life” is simply just as good without it. Don’t get me wrong – once this puppy hits DVD, bring it home, turn out the lights, and puff away, but on the big screen, it might be worth tuning in and staying afloat. Just the same, the concessions should see some line-ups.

Rating: A
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25th Hour, The

For my column on “The Rules of Attraction,” the question was how Lions Gate could market such a difficult film with its tricky narrative style, as well as the casting choice of wholesome WB stars as leads being counter-intuitive to the randy characters found in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. In my look at Mike McAlary’s source material for “City by the Sea,” I focused on the major changes the film made from the real-life case, deciphering what was based in reality and what was not. But for the adaptation of “The 25th Hour” to the screen, what conflict arises when you have a rookie screenwriter, David Benioff, being given the task to adapt his own novelr Obviously, there isn’t a second or third party directly injecting new blood in the transfer to a new medium via the screenplay. So it was a shock to no one that when the trailer was released on October 11th, it confirmed that the film would stick extremely close to the novel originally published two years ago, even with wildcard Spike Lee at the helm.

So rather than directly comparing product A to product B, let’s take a different approach here in looking at David Benioff’s “The 25th Hour.”

The Novel/Film’s Premise
In 24 hours, drug dealer Montgomery “Monty” Brogan will lose his freedom and begin a seven-year stint in federal prison for dealing drugs and possession of cocaine. While he had long dreamed of becoming a firefighter when he was growing up in Brooklyn, he instead chose the path of a drug dealer catering to the rich and famous. For Brogan, it was always about acquiring “sway.”

Sway, as Benioff writes, “helps make your money and money helps make your sway, but sway is not money. Sway is walking into a clothes shop and knowing you can buy anything on the shelves, true, but sway is also the clerk opening the shop after hours so you can walk through the aisles along with your girlfriend,” as an example. And his being enamored with this concept is his undoing— Due primarily to his good looks and sly demeanor, Monty has always had an easy course and knows that the next chapter will be far more challenging than his first 27 years.

While Brogan is clearly the focus of the story, the novel also pivots on the stories of his two close childhood friends, extrovert investment banker Frank Slattery and shy teacher Jakob Elinsky, and Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle Rosario. Early in the novel, Elinsky asks Slattery before they go to meet with Brogan to say farewell, “I’m nervous about seeing him. I really am; I’m scared. It’s like visiting a friend in the hospital with cancer. What do you sayr He’s going to be living in a cell for seven years. What do you say to himr”

Only Slattery realizes that this will be the “end of an era” for the group, having had a cousin in the famed prison of Sing Sing. As he tells Elinsky, “There’s not going to be a happy ending here…You think you’re still going to be friendsr You think you’ll kick back with a couple beers and reminiscer Forget it, Jake. It’s all over after tonight.”

On a secondary, and less successful, level, the novel looks at others affected by Brogan’s conviction—his father who has used his bar for collateral for Monty to be out on bond and who urges his son to run rather than face time in prison. His drug-lord boss, Uncle Blue knows that Brogan was ratted out by someone close to him and is determined to find out if Brogan in turn, will betray him for reduced time.

All of these weaving plotlines come together in Brogan’s final hours as his friends and well-wishers converge at VelVet to say goodbye. The novel is a study in transformation— best evidenced in the novel’s shocking final act, where Brogan asks his two childhood friends to destroy his face. When we last see Monty, his father is driving him to prison and he dreams of the better life had he made a run for it.

The novel is a riveting, taut attempt for a first-timer, and has an amazing ear for dialogue that should translate well to the film. As The New York Times wrote in an altogether glowing review in 2000, “novels like “The 25th Hour” don’t fall out of trees too everyday. The tone is dark and intense; its elegant style is cut on the raw side and the characters come from places we’ve all been.”

While this may work for the novel, I’m not so sure that it’ll work with general audiences. Disney, which is distributing the film through its Touchstone banner, will have to work hard to market it to audiences looking for a challenging, difficult film that is more in the vein of a hard-boiled “American History X” than “The Score.” Given the talent involved with the production, this should be a relatively easy task, although it is a very narrow niche.

Benioff, who grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, graduated with a BA from Dartmouth College and an MA from Trinity College in Dublin– and has now been on a hot streak as of late with his writing efforts. He has not been focusing his follow-up endeavors in the publishing world, but in the far more lucrative world of script-writing. In October 2001, he sold the supernatural thriller spec script “Stay,” which focuses on an Ivy League psychologist trying to stop a student from attempting suicide, to Regency Enterprises. That same month he also sold the script that’s now known as “The Trojan War,” to Warner Bros. In January, he hit the hat trick, selling yet another pitch in a fierce bidding war, this time to DreamWorks. The studio, however, won’t divulge details of the latter film’s title or plot, calling it only a 2003 tentpole feature. Marc Foster, who helmed “Monster’s Ball,” is currently attached to direct. All told, industry observers estimate that he made about $4.5 million in the space of three months for his story pitches. Not bad, not bad at all, for the 32 year-old novelist.

There is an interesting note here, though: The novel is most compared to Richard Price’s celebrated “Clockers,” which was also directed by Lee. Unfortunately, that film saw only a $13 million domestic gross.

The Characters

As this novel and the resulting film is a character study, let’s look at the individual characters of the novel and the actors who will portray each part. In an article in the Boston Herald, producer Tobey Maguire reveals that after he ultimately chose not to take the role of Brogan so he could promote “Spider-Man” internationally, he drew up a list of wish list of actors who he wanted to take part in the film; surprisingly, he was able to coerce many to take their roles, although each had to trim down their salaries to be a part of the $5 million-budgeted film.

Monty Brogan, as played by Ed Norton: When the reader first meets Monty, he is deep in thought in a park overlooking the East River with his faithful dog Doyle, thinking of what the future holds. As Benioff later notes, when he is sleeping with Naturelle, “thinking about her tomorrow makes him lonely—the idea of her laughing and talking with friends, walking down the sidewalks and glancing into shop windows, eating dinner at a restaurant.” He is seriously re-examining his life, thinking of where he is currently setting course for.

As much as I enjoy Maguire’s acting, I don’t feel this part would have as been as good a fit for the actor had he taken it— Norton is a far better fit here.

Frank Slattery, as played by Barry Pepper: A gifted, yet extremely cynical, banker, Slattery lives by himself in a tremendous, vastly under-furnished apartment. “At night he often dreams of avenging slanders real or imagined, wak[ing] with a feeling of satisfaction, of justice, only to realize that the vindication is mere fantasy, the wrongs still unrighted. All the men he has not fought but should have.” While he first shows concern for who will take care of Doyle, Brogan’s dog, we soon see he has a stronger concern for Naturelle, who he lusts for. Ultimately, we see that he falls on his own sword in that matter in a way that is appropriate for his personality. Other than these two plot points, he doesn’t have a strong storyline in the novel, although he gets some good mileage with his theory on the 99th percentile. The character is very analytical, but sometimes he lets himself fall victim to his temper.

This is a great role for the Canadian, who has done his best work with characters not set in the present day, be they fictional (the sniper in “Saving Private Ryan” or the guard in “The Green Mile”) or a historical character (Roger Maris in HBO’s “*61”). In preparation for the role, he spent three weeks in New York with a former stockbroker, who showed him the ropes of the city.

Jakob Elinsky, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is by far the most meaty of the three male leads. Elinsky is “an old pervert at the age of 26,” a confused English teacher who comes to realize that he lusts after an artsy schoolgirl. Goaded on by his gay mentor, Elinsky acts on it in the novel’s final act when the girl finds herself at Brogan’s farewell party. Whereas Brogan and Slattery had hard childhoods growing up in Brooklyn, he grew up in Manhattan’s Central Park West; they all seem to have switched social strata as they hit adulthood. Elinsky, at one point, is even written as an honorary member of the clique.

Hoffman as Elinsky fits well with the actor’s constant choices of taking the parts of cinema’s more difficult characters, although I would have liked to see he and Barry Pepper switch roles for the film. I would actually buy a ticket to see the fellow walk down the street, and the novel fulfills this in part by describing him as “one of New York’s finest pedestrians.” As Benioff writes, “He angles through the crowd, slipping the jabs and hooks of oncoming walkers, ducking below tree branches, tiptoeing along the curb’s edge, dodging the scattered piles of dogsh**, waiting for an opening and then darting into the clear.” Provided that Hoffman doesn’t sleepwalk through a role that is familiar to him (it’s shades of his work in “Happiness” and “Boogie Nights”), I can see him earning the heap of critic’s praise here and quite possibly a supporting Oscar nod.

Naturelle Rivera (renamed from Naturelle Rosario in the novel), as played by Rosario Dawson: At a few points in the novel Benioff makes sure to point out the lingering doubt Brogan has of Rosario, be if for that he is thinking it was she who turned him in to the cops or of the preternatural doubts of the life she will lead after he goes up the river. Save for a few scenes, she is more of a passive character in the novel. It is my hope that Benioff corrects this mistake in the film adaptation to make her more multi-dimensional. As reported in a June edition of USA Today, the name change was prompted because of the similarity from the character name to the actress’ name.

Originally the role was to have gone to singer Alicia Keys, who was forced to drop out of the film because of touring commitments. I’m not a big fan of Dawson’s acting choices, and the sight of her still stings from her terrible choices of roles in “Josie and the Pussycats” and “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” She is surrounded by a terrific cast, so hopefully she can receive better notices than she did in her works with Tara Reid and Eddie Murphy.

Among the other members of the cast, Anna Paquin plays Mary D’Annunzio, the student that Elinsky desires, and Brian Cox plays Brogan’s father. The novel portrays the fascination that Elinsky has for the former character as being somewhat of a mystery— a girl into punk rock and tattoos, who is still an adolescent. As many people of Elinsky’s age would tell you, Paquin, of course, is not. Also integral to the plot is mob boss Uncle Blue and Brogan’s partner Kostya Novotny, of whom I have been unable to find who they are portrayed by.

Box Office Speculation

As with most character studies, I’m guessing that this film will be greeted with audience and critical response similar to this month’s adaptation of “The Rules of Attraction,” which focuses on college life—either you are a fan of the film or you will leave the theater scratching your head. But like the latter film, this film has the push of Touchstone, rather than the threadbare Lions Gate, who was unable to support such a challenging film.

First, let’s look at what has already been said about the film, which has not been much. In his extremely negative script review for the film, Darwin Mayflower of Corona’s Coming Attractions made some good points about the commercial viability of the film. While he likes its overall concept, calling it “a great idea for a movie,” he concludes that it is a “totally empty experience,” squandering a winning set-up with a poor follow-through. Despite my disagreeing on several points of his review (I think he focuses too hard on Spike Lee’s past projects), I find Mayflower’s script analyses to be dead-on on how films will be received in the marketplace by general audience—he has a valid point here. It’ll connect with a select audience, but won’t be a hit with mainstream viewers.

So, Touchstone is doing the best thing here, opening this as a platform release on December 20th, with the hope that positive critical reaction and talk of Oscars for those involved will help to propel this film to connect with a wide general release in January. But the problem is the film’s competition that opening weekend—it could very easily get lost, as it competes for attention with two wide releases, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (which opens two days before then) and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” both of which are gunning for a slew of Oscar notices themselves.

What Touchstone needs to do at this point is increase awareness of the film among potential viewers; it’s very much lacking at even a base level. The trailer arrived far too late, uncoiling only 71 days before the film opens— at a time when others opening in the same timeframe saw trailers appear months ago.

The studio’s marketing efforts should also be concentrating on coordinating advance reviews among general audiences and the literati (all it got was a one-line mention in Book Magazine’s preview of fall movies based on literature) to help drive word-of-mouth, as well as ramping up its television exposure. Running television 15-second teasers during “Monday Night Football” and “Alias” would be a good fit for the studio and the audience it is trying to seek, a strategy that should be at the forefront of their media strategy seeing as how the ABC network is part of the Disney media conglomerate. They should also be cordoning off time in the lead actors schedules to properly promote this film in the normal avenues as well, which could be a problem with each of the three leads heavy filming other projects.

The more I look at “The 25th Hour,” I see how difficult marketing this film can be despite its interesting premise. Touchstone needs to treat this film very tenderly in its marketing strategy, it requires a deft hand. They need to stay focused on hitting the different niches and not going for a very general audience who will dismiss this film as too hard-boiled without a second thought. If need be, the studio should swallow its pride and look to the production companies involved for expertise, as both Industry Entertainment (“Requiem for a Dream”) and 40 Acres and a Mule (Spike Lee’s production house) have great expertise in targeting these types of audiences.

All told, with the right marketing and positive critical and audience reviews, “The 25th Hour” should gross somewhere in the $20 – 40 million dollar range in the end. Given its budget, this is makes for a very profitable venture. Benioff has found an adoring critical and book-reading audience with his novel and now Touchstone needs to capitalize on it, and begin the momentum.

Rating: A
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Zoolander

In the writing process of a film such as this it is very easy for the film to take a wrong turn and fail miserably in its attempt, with “Zoolander” Ben Stiller has mastered this challenge. While the characters were ridiculous in almost every way they were still very enjoyable to watch. Scenes that might normally be unbearable to watch (such as the “gasoline fight”), were actually incredibly funny. The entire film walks such a fine line of being very funny or just plain awful, it amazes me that it held itself together for the entire length of the film.

Owen Wilson’s performance was easily one of his best ever, and proves he is one of the best comedic actors in Hollywood. With his ability to pick good acting roles and his writing abilities shown from his co-writing of “Rushmore,” Wilson should be one of the top actors for some time to come. Ben Stiller as Derrick Zoolander was excellent as Derrick Zoolander, a role in which very few other actors would be able to perform.

“Zoolander” is able to successfully hold together a really absurd plot. In doing so I produces one of the funniest films of the year to date. The last time I laughed as hard during a movie as I did during “Zoolander” was during the first half an hour of “Moulin Rouge.” While this movie is probably not worthy to be considered in the elite class of great comedies it surely merits multiple viewings.

Rating: A-
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Hearts in Atlantis

The problem with the movie is that it tells two disjointed stories. The stories are both set off by Robert Garfield (David Morse), in the present day, getting a letter and a baseball glove as a bequest from his childhood friend John Sullivan’s will. As a result of this, he flashes back to his childhood, where we have two distinctive plotlines:

1. A relatively realistic coming-of-age story between young Garfield, the young girl he loves, and his friend Sullivan. Add to this a meddling, overprotective mother (Hope Davis), and complications ensue. Gradually, Garfield becomes stronger as a person and moves toward adulthood. This story is well-done, but somewhat underplayed. In particular, even though Sullivan leaves Garfield the glove that sets off the reminisence, he’s never given any character or substance. Also, because the “big star” of the movie isn’t in this plot, I suspect it may have gotten cut down in the testing process.

2. A somewhat odd supernatural story about Ted Bradigan (Anthony Hopkins), the new boarder in the Garfield home. Ted has a “second sight” (exactly what this extends to or means is never really explained), and is being chased by “Low Men.” He asks Garfield to keep him safe and watch for the “Low Men.” Slowly, he befriends Garfield, and their relationship develops.

Now, the stories do intersect, especially near the end of the film, but to a large degree, they’re very separate. One is pretty starkly realistic while the other is heavily supernatural. The supernatural story leaves A LOT of questions unanswered. What exactly are Bradigan’s powersr How did he get themr What is her Who are the “Low Menr” Why are they chasing himr What do they wantr We don’t know, and the unclarity makes it confusing.

Hopkins is really good here, playing a haunted man, but the story doesn’t really drive him forward. His character is just haunted the whole time and doesn’t really change or grow. Also, the child playing young Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is excellent and has a strong chemistry with Hopkins. The movie really rises or falls on his shoulders, and he holds it together well.

So, did I like the movier I think it’s a good film, and worth seeing. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully photographed. The problem is it’s not particularly entertaining or insightful. The insight it has to offer is that “childhood is a wonderful experience, but it’s fleeting.” This isn’t really anything new, having been said for ages in various movies, books, TV programs, and other sources. It’s interesting and noble, but in the end, I’m not sure it’s the great film it so painfully wants to be. It’s better than many films this year, but it’s not (I suspect) going to make my Top 10 for the year, nor do I expect it to burn up the box office, as it’s slowly paced and self-indulgent.

Rating: B-
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Count of Monte Cristo, The

I don’t know. But it did. Now, I got some spoilers here so watch out. Bare bones review: the movie is pretty solid and I would recommend it.

For all you illiterates and twelve year-olds out there, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is based on the classic (and really fucking long) novel by Alexandre Dumas who also wrote “The Three Musketeers” (and if you ever get the chance–there is an excellent stage adaptation written by Charles Morey that is the best version of the story I have ever seen). “Monte Cristo” was made into a Richard Chamberlain movie which I slept through in English class and is often described as the mother of all prison break movies. This version stars Jim Caviezel as Edmund Dantes, a naive sailor, and Guy Pearce as Count Mondego, a fellow adventurer and Edmund’s best friend. The movie opens with Jim and Guy landing on the island of Etta. Their ship’s captain has a “brain fever” and they are desperately looking for a doctor. Complications arise from the fact that Napoleon is being held prisoner on the island and, fearful of a possible prison break, his British captors have been ordered to shoot on sight anyone who sets foot on the island. Thus is set up our first big action scene and it’s poorly staged and confusingly edited and I was pissed as hell, cause it looked like I was going to be in for a long night.

In fact, the whole first act feels clipped and rushed like they new the film was long (this cut came in at about 130 minutes), they needed material to excise and the set-up was chosen to go.

Now, Dumas wrote really complicated plots so I won’t go into detail how or why Jim is set-up for treason by Guy and sent to an inescapable island prison, but suffice to say when Jim does get imprisoned, the movie starts to pick up steam. Jim is befriended by an old, wrongfully imprisoned priest played by Richard Harris who is much better and more lively here than he was in Gladiator. Dick teaches Jim all about mathematics, how to play swords and most importantly the location of a huge Spanish treasure. This is easily the best section of the movie, interesting and full of suspense and if it feels derivative of The Mask of Zorro… well, motherfuckers, guess who ripped off who. After Dick dies, Jim escapes the island and runs into a group of smugglers. Luis Guzman is one of these smugglers and he is set-up as one of the world’s greatest knife fighters and Luis is going to fight Jim to the death and if he doesn’t…the smugglers will kill both of them. So, there’s this great set-up for what will be a great action set-piece…only it never happens. Jim disarms Luis in about two seconds and then tells the smugglers that he refuses to fight and the smugglers say, “Okay. Come be a pirate with us.” The fuckr Look, you could have just put up a title card that says: “Jim meets a gifted minority actor who agrees to be his manservant and comic foil.” Lazy. And Luis Guzman is too good for treatment like that. Seriously, every time he was on screen I saw the audience lift themselves out of their seats so they could better see what he was doing. Dude’s got talent and charisma and even with the shitty material he had to work with, was quite good.

But enough negative remarks about the writing. One thing I really loved about this movie was the depth of characterization. Guy has his own petty, selfish reasons to do what he does, but we totally buy into it. And while he did fall into some mustache twirling shenanigans every now and then, most of the time Guy was quite human and very believable. Jim was even better, depicting a character who starts off as innocent and naive then becomes a shell of his former self: hollow, haunted, consumed with revenge. I thank Terry Malick and The Thin Red Line for introducing us to this actor. It’s great fun to see Jim reinvent himself as the Count, and begin his exacting revenge on his former captors. There’s also a nice little love story between Jim and newcomer Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Mercedes, Jim’s former fiance who has since married Guy. The climax of the movie is a little goofy. Does Jim really have to go “mano a mano” with Guy even after he has taken Guy’s family and money and exposed him as a murdererr I don’t know, it seemed kind of liked, “Hey, Gladiator had a big swordfight at the end, maybe we better have one, too!” I guess you do need one, but the motivation behind it didn’t seem so strong to me (shit, there I go talking like a creative exec again…). Oh, there’s also this one really lame character sub-plot about Jim losing his faith in God, but then he finds it again, I guess, by ramming steel rods through people’s chests and breaking Dorleac’s (Michael Wincott) neck.

This movie is better than any other big studio Hollywood action picture I’ve seen this year. The fight scenes may not be as flashy as what we’ll get in “The Musketeer,” but the story, characters, acting and visual design is all there. Solid filmmaking. I recommend it.

Rating: B+
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