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This girl can cook: Hermione (Emma Watson) stirs up a spell in Harry Potter.

The Spell Is Broken
By Laura Leon

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Directed by Chris Columbus

It took me a long time to finish reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to my two oldest sons, but not as long as it seemed that it took to view the latest film installment of J.K. Rowling’s wizard tales. At two hours and 41 minutes, Chamber is a challenge even for the most epic-loving cinemagoer. More to the point, it’s evidence that director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves were loath to leave out any detail of the book, lest ardent fans cry foul.

Ah, whatever happened to brisk storytelling?

Just as bad is that the filmmakers seem incapable of capturing Rowling’s deft blend of light comedy with slightly scarier elements. Chamber is either ridiculously silly, or far too horrific, forsaking the author’s middle ground and, in the process, scaring the bejesus out of younger/tamer viewers. The book’s giant spider, basilisk [an enormous serpent] and petrified remains of Harry’s Hogwarts School friends are transformed into something one might have found in an Alien installment—and let’s not even get into the part where the phoenix plucks out the snake’s eyes . . .

Another weird aspect of the movie cannot be helped: Stars Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, who play Harry Potter and his best pal Ron Weasley, have hit puberty, meaning their voices crack and whinny at inopportune moments. Aside from that, Radcliffe remains winning, whereas Grint needs to be directed not to make so many grimaces in the next installment—it’s wearing thin. Yet again, stealing the show is Emma Watson as the wonderfully smart Hermione. There’s a quick moment at the end of the movie in which Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris in his final role) announces that all exams have been canceled; all the students rejoice, but Hermione, being that type of gal who aces all tests, is clearly annoyed.

Such spontaneity is in short supply, however. With the exception of Kenneth Branagh, who plays the foppish professor Gilderoy Lockhart with pure glee, and Jason Isaacs, who plays the deliciously villainous Lucious Malfoy, much of the story and the acting (noticeably Alan Rickman as Professor Snipe) seems tired. Perhaps because of Harris’ ailing health and subsequent death, the movie’s only stirring moments are those in which Dumbledore, appearing frailer than the last time, offers up his nuggets of wisdom to Harry: “It’s not our abilities that make us who we are, but the choices we make in using them.” (Fundamentalist protestors of the series, are you listening?) The presence of Dumbledore’s aforementioned phoenix, a stunning creation, also provides Chamber’s only heart.

Visually, the movie nails certain things, noticeably the whomping willow, but its uneven mix of comedy and horror, of acting that runs the gamut from inspired to pedestrian, make this Chamber a pale imitation of its literary origins. One looks forward to Alfonso Cuaron’s takeover of the series with the third Rowling installment; if his A Little Princess, based on the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, is anything to go by, he’s got the right wizardry to transform the Harry Potter of the book into something truly magical onscreen.

Mama Don’t Preach

Real Women Have Curves
Directed by Patricia Cardoso

There must have been some long-ago decree issued by the gods of cinema: Every ethnic group must have its heartwarming coming-of-age film. Representing Los Angeles Latinos is Real Women Have Curves, an entertaining—if distressingly thin—story about a teenage girl’s battles with her mother and family over her future.

From the first moment we see her, it’s clear that Ana (charming newcomer America Ferrera) doesn’t have it easy. It’s her last day of school, and her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), is lying in bed crying. Carmen isn’t really sick, she just wants to sabotage her daughter’s triumph. Ana ignores her and makes the long, multiple-bus trip to the Beverly Hills public school where her considerable intelligence is respected.

Naturally, brains don’t mean a thing in Carmen’s plans for Ana. While Ana wants to go to college, Carmen wants her to go to work in her sister’s factory. Carmen started working at age 13; to her, Ana’s had it easy. So, off to the sweatshop Ana must go. To say the least, the smart high school grad has a difficult time fitting in. She’s bored, and the other women resent her. Secretly, Ana plots her escape—and pursues a crosstown Anglo kid her mother would not approve of.

Josefina Lopez, with co-scenarist George LaVoo, adapted the script from her play. She changed the focus from an ensemble piece about sweatshop life to a coming-of-age story. This explains why too many aspects of Ana’s life—from the particulars of her interaction with rich Anglos at her upscale high school, to her first romance—seem so sketchy. Considering the interesting interplay between the workers in the factory scenes, more’s the pity. According to Lopez, the characters in the play were in constant fear of raids by the Immigration and Nationalization Service. This element has been entirely, nonsensically removed, diluting the story’s political and social context.

Which leaves us with the struggle between mother and daughter. Carmen is so grotesquely nasty to her daughter that Ana’s minor rebellions seem more than justified. She ridicules Ana for thinking too much and being fat, for starters. (I really wanted Ana to slap her.) The fact that Carmen is sincere, believing that her restrictions and taunts are what’s best for Ana, adds a slight note of poignancy—very slight. The audience can’t help but be delighted whenever that cruel, deluded, whiny hypochondriac doesn’t get her way. Ontiveros’ performance is superb: Her Carmen is someone audiences will love to hate. The final conflict between them—and its open-ended resolution—is dramatically satisfying, and in keeping with the characters as we’ve come to know them. Ana’s final scene is affecting in its simplicity. With the film’s slice of Hispanic life so unsatisfying, at least this little drama is complete.

—Shawn Stone

The Ladies Protest Too Much

8 Women
Directed by Francois Ozon

In 8 Women, a hardened bonbon of a movie that is a radical departure from director François Ozon’s previous film (the penetrating Under the Sand with Charlotte Rampling), a half-dozen iconic French actresses and two unknowns are packaged like Barbie-doll versions of their cinematic selves. The magnificent eight, who are holed up in a rural manor house during a heavy snowstorm, include Catherine Deneuve as the haughty, bourgeois wife, Fanny Ardant as the bohemian interloper, Emmanuelle Beart as the saucy maid, Isabelle Huppert as the neurotically repressed spinster, and Virginie Ledoyen as the college-student ingénue. This ensemble would’ve made a great Vanity Fair layout, but with less plot than a round of Clue, 8 Women taxes their allure to the limit, along with the audience’s patience.

In traditional manor-house murder-mystery fashion, a member of the extended family is done away with before dawn. The women scratch and claw at one another verbally and literally, until one by one their venial mysteries are revealed. One is a lesbian, one has “a bun in the oven,” another is a closet alcoholic, and so on. When vexed, which is constantly, they resort to pulling hair and biting—and then they break into song. Most of the song routines fall flat, Beart’s excepted. Late in the game, Deneuve and Ardant fall to the floor in a tussle, leading to an impromptu make-out session (François Truffaut must be rolling in his grave), after which the revelation of whodunit is rather anticlimactic.

The film’s Technicolor couture, shellacked set design and 1950s class- consciousness are as stale as Ozon’s view of pre-women’s-lib women. When they’re not at each other’s throats, the equally unlikable women bemoan their financial and familial dependency. The film implies that this dependency is a lethal burden on the man in their lives, despite the sexual fringe benefits. With some well-written bitchiness, 8 Women might’ve qualified as campy fun with a classy cast, but only a couple of lines rise above hissy. Even Deneuve’s exquisite three-quarter profile and Ardent’s wickedly throaty laugh go for naught: Only a hairdresser could care about the predicament of Ozon’s old-hat harridans.

—Ann Morrow


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