★★★ / ★★★★
When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first scene showed Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the covers. I loved the double entendre and from that moment on, I knew that director Alfonso Cuarón would inject something special in an already magical and beloved series. There must have been an added pressure for Cuarón and the crew because J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is arguably most fans’ favorite book out of the seven published. On the way to Hogwarts, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) encountered a dementor, prison guards from Azakaban that were on the hunt for a criminal who had a reputation for being one of Voldemort’s most loyal followers. Rumors went around that the criminal in question was responsible for the deaths of Harry’s parents and that he wanted to kill Harry next. Although the third novel was not my favorite due to Voldemort’s absence, I was surprised by the film because it introduced three new characters in fun and memorable ways: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the dangerous criminal who escaped Azkaban, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense of the Dark Arts professor (which, we all know up to this point, there is something quite off about them), and Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the neurotic but amusing Divination professor. The movie also had another challenge by having Michael Gambon fill in the shoes for Albus Dumbledore because Richard Harris passed away. Despite that hurdle, it was ultimately a good change because Gambon’s interpretation of the character involved Dumbledore being a bit tougher and more prone to sarcastic remarks. Gambon should be given credit because he could have as easily played a nice, old wizard without any sort of edge. This film was a vast improvement from the second installment. While its predecessor tried too hard to be darker and only came to focus toward the middle portion, the storytelling here felt more natural and the direction felt more confident. It was actually a turning point for the series because it was when the actors finally felt comfortable in their roles and it sets up the tone for the upcoming movies. Furthermore, there was not a scene that I thought was wasted. I was not left confused because it included enough (admittedly, not all) key details from J.K. Rowling’s book. Since the material tackled some time travel, a less capable director could have delivered a less than satisfactory result. There were some changes from the novel but I welcomed such changes because I accepted that the film was Cuarón’s vision. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” did not have the magical golden glow that the previous two movies possessed but it was the most accomplished.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) dropped off an orphaned baby boy with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead on Privet Drive. Ten years later, we learned that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), unaware that he was a legendary figure in the magical community, was treated like a help by his aunt and her family. On his eleventh birthday, thanks to a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry found out that he was a wizard and was invited to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The “Harry Potter” series started off strong because it immediately and consistently captured the magic necessary to keep the audiences involved. Considering that this was the first entry in the series, the pace was incredibly fast as we came to meet important characters such as the brainy Hermione (Emma Watson) and friendly Ron (Rupert Grint). It also had to establish certain crucial storylines in which to be explored later such as Snape’s (Alan Rickman) true allegiance, the aunt’s (Fiona Shaw) relationship with Harry’s mother, and, of course, the rise of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Richard Bremmer). This installment is one of the most enjoyable to watch because it gave us a general tour of the students’ classes. (Am I the only one who thinks Potions is like Chemistry?) In each class, something very memorable happened such as a funny joke or a spell gone awry. Although it wasn’t as dark as the later films, I liked that innocence was highlighted because, when I was a freshman in high school and the university, everything felt new and exciting. I was eager to learn and prove that I was worthy. Harry and his friends enveloped those qualities, especially by Hermione who was considered as a know-it-all. One of my favorite lines was when she stated the fact that being expelled from Hogwarts was worse than being killed. On the other hand, Ron desperately wanted to belong. In terms of performances, there were times when I thought the child actors were still uncomfortable in their roles. They tried their best and were able to deliver most of the time but their inexperience could not be overlooked at times especially when they had to interact with veteran actors like Smith and Harris. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on J.K. Rowling’s novel and directed by Chris Columbus, was an instant classic because it successfully established a world we would revist for years to come. John Williams’ score was simply magnificent. As a fan of the books, I was impressed with the amount of information it covered. I wished that the later film adaptations were as complete. It would have been an absolute joy if the movies were three or four hours long because there were other interesting tertiary characters (Oliver Wood played by Sean Biggerstaff, for example) and side quests.