For a long time I was resistant to the idea of making a point of reading novels that were being made into films. If a noted filmmaker’s reading list intersects your own, then fine — but I’m generally more interested in the film qua film than I am in its relationship with the source material, unless said source material is uncommonly fine. I found complaints about changes made by Peter Jackson to the Tolkien mythology to be tediously petty, especially since the films turned out so well (and also because the books bored my pants off as a youngster), and although I suppose I’m grateful when a talented critic nutshells the vagaries of a particular book-to-film adaptation, I seldom feel the need to do the kind of homework required to elucidate that process myself. At the end of the screening, after all, the film needs to stand on its own.
Never having read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter movie, I was keen to see exactly how confusing this fifth installment in the wildly popular young-wizard saga would seem. Happily, this is the kind of movie where nearly every character is identified by name (and loudly!) as they make their first appearance on screen. It doesn’t take much knowledge about the complicated backstory to enjoy the cracking coming-of-age story about responsibility to your conscience, the importance of friendship, and the evil that can be done by corrupt bureaucrats. (Alternate title: Harry Potter Fights the Power.) The picture is derailed occasionally by that rushed, strait-jacketed feel associated with slavish adaptations, and the last reel is a bit anticlimactic, but this is still an engaging yarn with some gorgeous special-effects work. There’s also a special pleasure in seeing so many very young actors holding their own in scenes featuring their prodigiously gifted elders—Fiona Shaw, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Maggie Smith, just for starters. (Even Helena Bonham Carter shows up in a frightwig for what amounts to a cameo as a “Death Eater” named Bellatrix Lestrange!) Not a great film, but an ideal family matinée.
Tom Tykwer is not a favorite — I liked Run Lola Run well enough on a single viewing, but watching it a second time was an exercise in diminishing returns, and I had little use for The Princess and the Warrior. So I had written this project off long ago, despite the fact that the novel by Patrick Süskind is among my very favorite books. What a surprise, then, in the opening reel. The Dogville-inspired flashbacks characterized by the (re)use of John Hurt as a sardonic narrator were a little disorienting, but what was up on screen was a rich and putrid vision of 18th Century France, resplendent in colorful detail and redolent with the kind of grunge you’d expect to see slathered across the set dressing in a Monty Python movie. You could almost — yes — smell it.
It could be worse, I suppose. Blissfully unfamiliar with the showtunes that made Rent an off-Broadway and Broadway stalwart, I was put off in a big way by the original trailer, whose main feature is a bare stage featuring an octet of performers (look, I recognize Taye Diggs!) belting out “Seasons of Love,” which feels kind of like the ur-Broadway musical song — fresh-scrubbed-yet-gloppy all-you-need-is-love sentiment, a notch above Hallmark, a notch below Neil Diamond.
Imagine, if you like, that Se7en‘s Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has come out of retirement. He’s been drawn back into the homicide department by the disappearance of his beloved niece. The investigation draws him out of the previous film’s nameless city to the relative serenity of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where he finds that his niece’s case fits into a pattern of abductions of beautiful young women. Three of them have been found dead — molested horribly and left in the woods to be eaten by animals — but Somerset guesses that the others are being held captive by a “collector” of some sort. Set on stopping this guy, who has taken the vile nom-de-crime of “Casanova,” Somerset puts his considerable compassion and wisdom to work at cracking the case. I guess you could call this fictional movie Eig8t.