Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

It started so well.

There were wonderous effects. Okay, they weren't as good as Lord of the Rings, and they served a simple plot, but the makers of the Harry Potter series had a fully realized notion of what the world of Hogwarts should be like. The early movies were fresh and exciting and morphed over time into fare like "The Prisioner of Azkaban" where discrimination and childhood fears became themes that drove the fantasy.

That is now over with.

The latest Harry Potter installment is a vapid, slowly paced bore where our characters discover teenage love, and then proceed to begin caring more about who is going with whom to the Christmas party than the pesky little matter of the Dark Lord who is trying to kill them all. For two and a half hours, not much happens. Then a little happens, and then credits roll.

This is it? This is the training that Harry Potter has received from Hogwarts over the last six years? For this we sat through Order of the Phoenix, where it appeared as if Harry was actually about to, you know, do something about his situation? Instead we are treated to such thrilling scenes as Harry deciding who gets to be on this year's Quidditch team.

At this point we should be past the simple patterns of high school life: people have died, and Hermione has turned back time for crying out loud. But this installment has our players back to the mewling magical infants of the first movie. There is nothing wondrously magical here--only poor timing, cheap gags, and characters who have moved two steps backwards.

The set design and effects are better than ever, but only a shell of the former greatness remains for this series.

2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Into the wild green yonder

Futurama has always included parodies of the classic sci-fi Gen X grew up on (Exhibit A: Zapp Brannigan.) But I think it was at its best when it took those classic themes and made them the heart of the story.

That is what I thought that "Into the Wild Green Yonder", the last of the four Futurama straight-to-DVD movies, accomplished. It took the tried and true plot line of hero with special power needs to fight dark power and wrote a story around it that bounced between humor and action. Despite the name, it was not the wildest Futurama, but it had earnest characters trying to do right in their screwed up universe, and that is something that everyone can relate to.

I am glad to see that Comedy Central has ordered up another season of the show--Futurama is a unique gem written by people that love science fiction but who are not afraid to play around with its conventions. For the record, my rankings of the movies are:
1) Bender's Big Score
2) Into the Wild Green Yonder
3) The Beast with a Billion Backs
4) Bender's Game.

It breaks my heart to put Bender's Game last, given that D&D and fantasy gaming in general has always been near and dear to my heart, but the script did not rise to the same level as the others.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Festival for the Eno

This year I decided I would head out to the Festival for the Eno for the full three days as a last blast of Durhamness before I embraced fully the need to pack. And I was not disappointed! There were lots of great acts this year, and some favorites of mine.

First, though, I feel I owe a plug for Ellis. Her music and lyrics paint pictures of the kind of soul that I want to be, and that is a wonderful thing. If that were all, she would be one of my favorite performers--but she also manages to deftly weave funny poignant stories in between her songs. It wasn't until Saturday that I realized that many of them were made up right on the spot.

And that brings me to why I owe Ellis a plug.

On Friday I had gone to her concert and bought her new DVD set. While wandering the craft booths looking for a present for someone, I realized the perfect gift would be an Ellis CD. Besides, she's always friendly to chat with and signs her CD's, so that would be perfect. So I went back and bought another CD. Which is probably why she recognized me the next day.

On Saturday I went to her show at the Meadow stage at the Eno, which is notable for having a large area in front of the stage that is in the sun. On a day like Saturday with 91 plus weather, no one sits in the sun unless they have to.

So in order to get a picture, you have to get pretty darn close to the stage, and you will be the only one standing in the sun in full view. Okay, so I accept that, and I know that the performers all see you.

But I didn't think I'd be distracting, until I saw through the viewfinder that Ellis had taken a step back from the mike and turned to look at me. She smiled, so I didn't think anything of it, until she finished the song and started chatting with the audience again.

"I'm sorry I forgot the lyrics there for a moment. You see, the gentleman taking pictures down there was here the day before and we had a sweet interaction. And so when I saw him, suddenly all I could think of was...yesterday."

Everyone laughed, and it was the perfect segue into her next song, a lighthearted number about forgetting where her car was parked. The point is, obviously she couldn't have prepared the thought she had, she just used what happened naturally to make a joke and make a great show even better. It's a skill I'm constantly trying to perfect while giving lectures, and it is always great to watch a master at work. Thanks, Ellis!

Fiddlefoxx is now a trio, and remains a unique sound combining (unsurprisingly) the fiddle and Steve Foxx's beatbox skills. The Midtown Dickens throw everything they have at all their songs, and often are holding an instrument in each hand and running around to get more during their sets.

Finally, the big draw of the show this year was Albanach, a Scottish drum and pipes band in the US for the Highland Games in Linville next week. They are very high energy, and since so many in North Carolina are of Scottish descent, was a fan favorite. They did four sets, and all were very highly attended.