Harry Potter and Company are growing up on the big screen. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is taller and his voice is deeper. His best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) has a waver in his voice too. The clever and somewhat haughty Hermione (Emma Watson) is looking more like a promising prom date for one of them. And the challenges the three amigos face in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets have gotten more frightening.
When Harry makes a dramatic return to the campus at Hogwarts School for Wizards, he discovers that there is danger on the loose. A mysterious villain has opened a "chamber of secrets" and unleashed a powerful monster that is turning students into stone. Harry, once again smarter than his teachers, must investigate the mystery with his two loyal friends and break school rules along the way.
The new adventure is told with more confidence, better pacing, and more elaborate special effects. Columbus turns down the volume on sentimentality and the John Williams score, and makes Chamber of Secrets funnier and more exciting than Sorcerer's Stone. But it is also long and scarier than the first movie—much scarier. Parents should think twice before buying tickets for small children. The spiders and snakes preying on poor Harry are the stuff of serious nightmares.
But moviegoers will probably find this episode more compelling for several reasons. The idea of hidden villains is increasingly more real to us, as reports of terrorists and snipers dominate the news.
New grownup cast members Kenneth Branagh, Rosemary Harris, Miriam Margolyes, and The Patriot's Jason Isaacs bring so much humor and enthusiasm to the proceedings, they'll make George Lucas's straitjacketed Star Wars actors want to switch franchises.
Moreover, Chamber provides many moral lessons. Harry is again tempted to use his talents for evil, but he learns that a hero is defined not by abilities, but by choices. Viewers will find that the story also has other things on its mind: the challenges of adolescence and the problems of prejudice. My exploration of this Potter episode is posted at Looking Closer.
Most mainstream reviewers herald Potter's return as reason to celebrate. Roger Ebert calls it "a glorious movie. What's developing here, it's clear, is one of the most important franchises in movie history. J.K. Rowling … has created a mythological world as grand as Star Wars, but filled with more wit and humanity."
But Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier) says, "Instead of making great cinema or great drama out of Rowling's book, [the filmmakers] faithfully cram as many of the book's plot twists as possible into their two-and-a-half-hour running time. In doing so, they unintentionally sacrifice much of the story's personality and charm."
Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com) agrees: "Columbus doesn't understand the difference between adaptation and painstaking translation: He moves along from plot point to plot point as if he were filling in a giant sheet of graph paper."
Religious press critics widely disagreed about the film. (An early review was included in last week's edition.)
Michael Medved claims the film is vastly better than the first installment in the series.
But Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "What the first story had that this sequel necessarily lacks—and has nothing to make up for—is the thrill of discovery, the sense of wonder. Without the advantage of novelty it feels 20 or 30 minutes too long." Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth) and John Evans (Preview) agree that the film's running time is "a bit trying."
Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) describes it as "suspense dipped in dread, and swirled throughout with fresh teenage angst. Harry's identification with classical images of Christ figures shows the moral center of this series is dead-on. He continues to learn … that the evil power which must first be defeated is not in the Other, but within oneself." Referring to the appearance of a phoenix, Hertenstein says, "It's impossible not to think of the phoenix legend as a Christian symbol, which it has been since the early church fathers recognized this ancient pagan myth of death and resurrection as an image of Christ. Likewise, the not-so-ancient myth of Harry Potter reminds us that innocence is preserved only by self-sacrifice and rebirth."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) praises Columbus and the cast, and he explains, "We can see that Rowling's fantasy imagination has its roots in the real world and involves issues which man has continually faced throughout history." The film's themes are further highlighted at DickStaub.com; questions for after-viewing discussion are offered there as well.
Beliefnet offers an article on parallels between Harry Potter and Christ, and features a debate on the subject that includes writers John Killinger (God, The Devil, and Harry Potter), Richard Abanes (Fantasy and Your Family), Patrick Madrid, (editor of the Catholic magazine Envoy), and professors Thomas L. Martin (Florida Atlantic University), and Andrew Blake (King Alfred's College, Winchester, U.K.)
Families seeking to help their children glean good lessons from Harry Potter should check out Christian author Connie Neal (www.connieneal.com), who provides a variety of resources emphasizing the use of metaphor and myth in Harry Potter and how these are wonderful tools for reinforcing readers' understanding of the Gospel.
Paul Chinn (Relevant Magazine) addresses criticism that Harry Potter re-packages Satanism for a new generation. "I am not arguing that witchcraft and the occult are not dangerous. They are. But that isn't what Harry Potter is about." Chinn reminds us that popular Christian writer and commentator Charles Colson calls the wizardry "purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals - but they don't make contact with a supernatural world. … [It's not] the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." Colson also praises Harry and his friends for their "courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another - even at the risk of their lives."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) writes, "Parents, think back to when you were a kid. Remember how much fun it was to see movies filled with fantasy and magic? Did you survive? Did it change your faith or lifestyle after you saw that movie?" She says to parents, "It is important that you be the gatekeeper for your children."
Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) avoids taking sides on the magic issue. "What will be easy for both sides to agree on is that the violence and fear factors in this movie are quite inappropriate for the younger portion of Harry's intended audience."
Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) claims the film "glorifies the occult in a glamorous way. My strong recommendation (as with the first film) is to skip it. I find all of the content, as a Christian parent, very offensive."
Yahoo News and Ananova News report that the Rev. Douglas Taylor, leader of the Jesus Party in Lewiston, Maine, led a group in cutting up Harry Potter books on the film's opening night. (The city would not give him a burning permit, so he was left to scissors.) Taylor represents a vocal group of Christians who believe the books promote witchcraft and paganism.
"I feel like I'm in a cutting mood tonight," said Taylor. "It's no secret that I enjoy what I'm doing right now." Referring to Rowling's series, he declared, "You get involved in this, it's gonna make you dirty." Outside the "party," which was held at a hotel, about 25 Potter fans protested. Taylor explained, "'I am a soldier of Christ. ' A pagan is not a soldier of Christ. That makes the pagan my enemy tonight."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) acknowledges that the film is "slightly better constructed and more emotionally involving than the first movie." He also points out that it is dangerous to make heroes out of kids who break school rules. But on the subject of magic, he says the book is possessed of "a strong occult worldview with a nominalistic philosophy" and it "has the power to destroy."
Christian film critic Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) shares similar sentiments: "If God is instructing us to avoid occult practices, how can we justify using it to entertain ourselves? When an author makes a billion dollars on four books that have sorcery as their main theme, and … critics hail it as incredible filmmaking without examining its occultic roots, I question what's really behind this phenom. Satan is most alluring with a glossed-over package."
If you or your older children are unable to separate make believe from reality, Film Forum urges you to beware of another family film—The Jungle Book 2.This Disney sequel is just a fantasy. In real life it is unwise for kids to live in the wilderness and play with wild bears. Could this be a Disney plot to lure us into dangerous behavior?
Also Hot From The Oven
Action star Steven Seagal continues to put out critically disregarded action films, leaving many critics baffled that theatergoers even buy tickets. His latest hyperviolent vehicle bears the riveting title Half Past Dead.
Michael Elliott says the flick "expends a considerable amount of ammunition but, not surprisingly, it doesn't really hit anything. Stretching credibility beyond the breaking point, it actually transcends any semblance of logic, thus eliminating the need to try and follow the story." He adds a note of surprise, however, at the references to God in the script. One of the characters who is counting down the hours to his execution "wants assurance that God has forgiven him."
Steven D. Greydanus also notices this emphasis on God's forgiveness, but concludes, "These musings ultimately go nowhere as the movie turns to its real interest, action sequences involving all the [violence] that a PG-13 rating will possibly allow."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "I'm tempted to write to the Motion Picture Association of America and ask its anonymous ratings board precisely what a violent action film has to do to get an R rating anymore." Of the movie, he says, "The violence isn't the only thing that's brutal. The acting is an embarrassment."
Phil Boatwright says, "Bad acting, sloppy direction and the most improbable scheme known to the action/adventure genre are all this film has to offer. It's not fun, just silly. During a season of award-hopeful releases, about the only acknowledgement this production could muster is Worst Film of the Year."
For early opinions on the new drama The Emperor's Club starring Kevin Kline visit Catholic News, Movie Parables, and Looking Closer. Christianity Today's Douglas LeBlanc also reviewed the inspirational movie. The film opens this weekend, and Film Forum will feature review excerpts next week.
Film Forum posted early reviews of Far From Heavenlast week, but the film drew more praise and attention this week. It looks to be a major Oscar contender.
Far From Heaven pays homage to the films of Douglas Sirk in its exploration of 1950s mores. Most critics are talking about the way that Sirk hinted at repressed sexuality and social taboos in films like Imitation of Life and All That Time Allows.
Most modern moviegoers don't remember Sirk. They're more familiar with films and shows that emphasize the dysfunction behind the family photo. Thus, they'll be quick to pick up that nothing is as it seems. The only suspense lies in guessing what manner of monster will rear its ugly head.
In this case, there are a host of monsters. The community is rife with prejudice, sexual and racial. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) seems like the ideal wife and mother, with all her wishes granted. But her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual. Cathy herself, perpetually lonely behind that smile, suffers from spousal neglect, and thus finds it difficult to resist her attraction to the handsome, kind hearted black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert.) Repressed passions make the characters walking time bombs. Their friends, an array of smiling upper-class villains, keep busy sharpening their tongues for vicious gossip.
The result is an elaborately crafted film with a subtle but honorable agenda. Haynes seems uninterested in defending or condemning sexual preferences. He focuses instead on peeling back the façade of a trouble-free neighborhood to expose the problem of prejudice, the damage done by infidelity, and how those who show love and compassion for persecuted minorities will be persecuted themselves. The film is resonant with insight, but paints a bleak picture of a cold and lonely existence.
Ebert says the film is "like the best and bravest movie of 1957. Its themes, values and style faithfully reflect the social melodramas of the 1950s, but it's bolder, and says out loud what those films only hinted at."
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Eminem's big-screen debut as a rapper with a gift, 8 Mile, continues to receive a mix of praise and criticism.
Robert Jackson (Decent Films) observes, "The F-word … is used literally hundreds of times in the space of two hours." But he also notes, "Eventually [Eminem's character] perceives the necessity of taking responsibility for his actions, of making better choices, and of getting away from the people who are holding him back. As he begins to do so, he starts regaining confidence and doing the things he needs to do to get the kind of life he wants. This film actually could do some good." But he concludes, "Unfortunately, for conscientious Christian viewers—or simply viewers with weak stomachs—the thick blanket of depravity, crassness, and squalor in which 8 Mile wraps its message will make the film simply unwatchable."
Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) have posted a summary and post-viewing discussion questions for Disney's latest family offering, Tuck Everlasting. They find the idea that "unending life here on earth would be a curse" to be "a profound spiritual statement." Earlier reviews of the film can be found here.
Next week: James Bond returns in Die Another Day, George Clooney faces spiritual mysteries on a voyage to Solaris, and Kevin Kline teaches a tough student in The Emperor's Club.
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