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Wednesday, July 17

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Exercising full disclosure: I have never read a Harry Potter book in my life, so my only exposure to the characters in these stories has been through the films. While I mostly enjoyed the first two films, the Prisoner of Azkaban was by far my favorite of the first three, thanks primarily to the gloomy, more adult approach by director Alfonso Cuáron. My preamble confession continues by telling you I've seen Goblet of Fire twice. Once, just a couple days ago on the glorious IMAX screen at Navy Pier.

But prior to that (those who read my Ain'tItCool.com postings already know this), I was among the very first audience in the world to see an unfinished rough cut of the film this past summer. I'd guess 75 percent of the special effects were in various stages of incomplete. Everything from the entire opening Quidditch World Cup (which was all just animated storyboards when I first saw it) to backgrounds was unfinished. There were some scenes where you actually could see the overhead lights of the sound stage. But the brief glimpses we got of certain finished effects were breathtaking. My biggest disappointment in terms of effects was the sequence involving the rebirth of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). A grey-faced Fiennes certainly looked creepy enough but with various colored dots on his face, clearly the filmmakers had something truly nasty in store for his looks. Having seen it finished now, the work done on Fiennes' face is extraordinary and borders on terrifying. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and there are some fundamentals to cover.

Guess what, kiddies? Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has arm hair. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) has an pronounced Adam's apple (no matter how hard he tries to hide it by wrapping that annoying scarf around his neck). And it might be illegal in some states to say what's going on with Hermione's anatomy, but let's just say she's filling out an evening gown a little nicer than the last time we saw her. Alright fine, I'll just say it. Emma Watson is turning into a bona fide babe.

What I wasn't aware of going into Goblet of Fire (aside from the entire plot) was that this is the coming-of-age entry in the series. The students make jokes and comments that make it perfectly clear that they know the difference between girls and boys. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) emphasizes the raging hormones that seem to cloud many of the interactions between these wizards in training. In addition, there's a bizarre sequence in a glorified jacuzzi with Harry and Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson) in which she is clearly attempting to check out Harry's goods under the water. No wonder she's moaning.

What little we see of the big opening Quidditch match is even more exciting than the last one we saw, but it doesn't hold a candle to the thrilling TriWizard Tournament challenges, in particular the first challenge in which Harry goes one on one against an angry dragon. The second challenge, set in a dark lake with all manner of threatening undersea creatures, is probably the main reason this is the first Harry Potter film to get a PG-13 rating. The scare factor is high.

In both versions of this film that I've seen, the real strength and excitement about Goblet of Fire are the characters, particularly the new ones. Leading the pack is Brendan Gleeson's Prof. "Mad-Eye" Moody. Boy, does Gleeson nail this one. I have no idea if his characterization of Mad-Eye is similar to that of the book, but for the first time in watching any of the films, I'm tempted to read the books just to find out more about Moody. He's such a refreshingly wicked change from the other straight-laced, reserved teachers at Hogwarts that you can't help but like him. Also on hand is Miranda Richardson's snoopy reporter Rita Skeeter, a character whose time in this story is apparently chopped down considerably from the book. Richardson is still quite good as the most annoying person in any earthly realm. Finally, we have Fiennes as Voldemort. Even in his pre-rendered state, Voldemort is terrifying with his pointy teeth, grey skin, and a nasty persona. This is the first time in any of these films I actually feared for Harry's life.

All of our old favorites are still around, and most of them get at least one great scene to really shine. I feel a great deal of comfort when I catch site of Alan Rickman casting glances as Prof. Snape. Maggie Smith still shines as Prof. McGonagall. The only school regular that kind of gets shafted in terms of screen time is Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid; I wouldn't have minded more of him. The biggest surprise in Goblet of Fire is Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, who really gets to inhabit and flesh out his character much more than in any of the other films. He's a key figure for Harry in uncovering the mystery of a recurring nightmare he's having, and I loved their scenes together. Also on hand (sort of) is Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman in the last film. My phrasing is deliberate because Sirius is seen in "disguise."

As sinister and gloomy as the main Goblet of Fire tale is, what I found myself most drawn to were the trials and tribulations of the kids entering adolescence. Harry and Ron finally realize that they may have lingering feelings for Hermione. Harry has his first hint of a crush on someone outside of his immediate circle of friends. Hermione practically has an affair with one of Harry's tournament competitors, but this reveals Ron's latent crush on her for the first time. Also finally getting some face time are Ron's older twin brothers, who essentially provide comic relief here, but are clearly set to take a bigger role in future stories. Director Newell manages these young performers with maturity, without making them seem like characters on "Saved by the Bell."

This is the best of the Harry Potter films, folks, no two ways about it. The acting is so much better than the perfectly acted third film, and the story and emotions add such a layer to this already fascinating series. I think I may hold off on reading any of the books until all of the films are completed. I'm digging going into the films unencumbered with too much backstory. If a person who has no connection to this universe enjoys these films as much as I do, the filmmakers have got to be doing something right.


Walk the Line
It's almost impossible to fathom that just a little over a year after arguably the finest biopic made about a musician, Ray, was released that another film comes along about an equally influential player that might be even better. Also covering the death of a brother and the kicking of a life- and career-endangering substance addiction, Walk the Line chronicles the early years of country and rock legend Johnny Cash, played and sung with eerie accuracy by Joaquin Phoenix, who may have surpassed Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Truman Capote as the front-runner for an acting Oscar.

Unlike Jamie Foxx's dead-on impersonation of Ray Charles in Ray, Phoenix isn't going for a performance based solely on how closely he resembles the Man in Black. Instead he concentrates on attitude, mannerisms and, above all, stage presence, including an uncanny vocal turn as Phoenix (unlike Foxx) does all his own singing here. As much as this sounds like a gimmick, the effect of hearing Phoenix's vocals sends this film into the stratosphere of greatness. The impact, especially on fans of Cash's music, is undeniable and overwhelming.

Cash's life is faithfully reconstructed, from his childhood picking cotton on the family farm in Arkansas to his loving mother (Shelby Lynne) and critical father (especially when the favored older brother dies). Robert Patrick's turn as the nasty Ray Cash is established as the driving force in Johnny's life. In his quest to win his father's approval, he never gave up his dream of being a singer, even after getting married to Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), having two daughters, and moving to Memphis to be closer to the heart of music in America. Cash managed to get an audition with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), and in one of the film's best scenes, Phillips encourages Cash to drop the gospel music he and his amateur band are playing and try something different. When Cash tentatively pulls out an original tune called "Folsom Prison Blues," nothing in music will ever be the same.

Walk the Line is like a trip through history as Cash gets signed to Sun Records and hits the road with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and even one-time child singing sensation and member of the legendary Carter Family singers, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, also providing her own singing). I'm a bit baffled by criticism I've read about Witherspoon's singing in this film. First off, it sounds fine. Second, June Carter said on more than one occasion (including a couple times in this movie) that she wasn't much of a singer, and that her real talents were having a sassy personality on the radio, being a crowd favorite and impressive foil for Cash, and later, songwriting. Witherspoon captures all of these here, and gives the best performance of her career. The flirting between the two is fearless, even though both are married nearly the entire time they play together.

As if to get our support and validation for Johnny and June's eventual affair, filmmaker James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, Heavy, Identity) portrays Cash's first wife Vivian as a shrew who doesn't support his music even after he begins making a living with it. Whether it's accurate or not, it feels unfair and may be the film's only flaw. Of course, no one is portrayed with more faults than Cash himself as he begins a nasty pill and booze habit that lasts him many years and nearly cost him his career and his future with June. Phoenix plays Cash as if he invented the term "son of a bitch," and really shows us his acting chops like we've never seen him do before. Witherspoon doesn't play June as an entirely supportive woman in these early years. Instead, she is a protective mother of two of her own daughters, who doesn't want Cash's drugged-out ways anywhere near her family.

Walk the Line's emotional epicenter is Cash's legendary performance (and live recording) at Folsom Prison, and the recreation of that event here is astonishingly energetic, as Cash ignores the advice of the prison warden to stick to gospel musical and unleashes a series of songs about death and killing and prison life that is unprecedented. Walk the Line maintains the dark and gritty feel of Cash's music while hinting at a future filled with sensitivity and class. The film also does something far more important: it reminds us that Johnny Cash used to rock as a performer and a songwriter. There is life and fire in Walk the Line, and my guess is that you'll leave the theatre humming any one of a half-dozen Cash tunes because you just can't help yourself. This is one of the great films of the year.


Ballet Russes
I know two things about professional ballet: jack and squat. But somehow, this documentary on two of the most visionary and competitive ballet companies from the 1930s until the 1960s kept me completely absorbed thanks to some extraordinary archival footage and keen analysis from the dancers who made the companies great. The European-based Ballets Russes was a rare combination of experimental dance and other contemporary artists (such as Picasso, Matisse and Dali, all of whom contributed set designs for various productions).

In its beginning, the company was comprised of Russian dancers who had left their homeland and came to London, where it split into two rival troupes. The competitive nature of the London ballet scene in those early years resulted in some of the most daring production in history, and the film does a remarkable job presenting many of those legendary performances with restored footage. The Ballet Russes was the first company to use famous classical music for its score, rather than original works. The company's first tour of America has become the stuff of legend. And since many of the original dancers are still alive (most still dancing or teaching dance), we get to hear not only a chronicle of the troupe's history but also some of the who's-sleeping-with-whom gossip. The history of the Ballet Russes, as with many artistic productions of the time, is one filled with money problems, egos the size of the Hindenburg (often with similar fates), and shoddy management. And no amount of talented dancers (eventually recruited from all corners of the globe), choreographers or designers could save either troupe from crumbling.

While watching Ballet Russes, I couldn't help but wonder why I was watching this film anywhere but on a PBS network, where it clearly belongs. I wondered if people would care enough to go see this film in a theatrical run, but ballet fans have surprised me before (no really, they have). Directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller have done a fine job explaining and illustrating the artistic and historical importance of the Ballet Russes, and I'm grateful for that. Their filmmaking style is nothing spectacular; they just sit back and let the lovely footage speak for itself. A wise decision.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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