Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Caedmon's Call and Derek Webb

Derek Webb, as you perhaps heard of in passing, made headlines when he decided to give away his album Mockingbird for free last year. To have a guy who gives away his music for free, and even when he doesn't says in the notes on his latest album The Ringing Bell that he supports the sharing of music is a brave thing to do. Such a brave thing that I don't want his music for free, I want to support him which is why I bought another copy to give to a friend, even though he said himself he wouldn't mind if I burned a copy and saved myself twelve bucks.

That's why I'm very happy that Webb has re-joined the band that got him Caedmon's Call, for their new album Overdressed. You can check out a track from it on the band's myspace page, but to put it simply it's sounding pretty good. All the songs are co-written between several members of Caedmon's Call, including Webb and his wife Sandra McCracken (who made Paste's Magazine Reader's List of Top Ten Albums of 2006.) The band is describing the album as an organic experience, with special attention and reliance on rhythm which sounds good based on the fact I've been noticing how crucial and cool the drums sound on all of Webb's albums.

But, it gets better, besides the fact that I have great trust in Webb and therefore in a Caedmon's Call with him, and the interesting theme of the album which is said to be how we overdress ourselves, hide ourselves, and are not open to letting other people in, and therefore will remain unchanged, and spiritually deadened, but Webb and his bandmates being the great people they are, are pre-selling two copies of the album through their store (which can be accessed through their official site) for 12 bucks. So you get two for the price of one, letting you legally share great music with a friend. Never in my life have I been so excited in my life to save fifteen bucks!

Order them now before it disappears, the site gurantees they arrive in late August (they list a specefic date but I'm too lazy to go look it up again) so you'll get it by the time it arrives in stores, and, if I may hazard a guess, seeing as they gurantee it by that time it means they'll probably be shipping it a couple weeks early which may easily result in you gettting it a week earlier or more.

Oh, yeah, I forgot, your two copies also happen to be exlusive limited edition copies which include an extra two tracks. So you get two albums with fourteen songs each, for 15 bucks with their best shipping option.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

More Harry Potter

I decided to post this snipet from A.O. Scott's (film critic for the New York Times) review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At first he seemed to be giving the movie more credit than deserves, even going so far as to make you feel he actually felt it was at least "even" with the novel. And, although he doesn't giving Rowling the credit I think she deserves, he does, if it's anyting, agree with me. His words are as follows:
"And like its predecessors, it manages to succeed as a piece of entertainment without quite fulfilling its potential as a movie. Perhaps by design, the films never quite live up to the books. This one proves to be absorbing but not transporting, a collection of interesting moments rather than a fully integrated dramatic experience. This may just be a consequence of the necessary open-endedness of the narrative, or of an understandable desire not to alienate “Potter” readers by taking too many cinematic chances. "

His comment on how the movie was absorbing was not transporting buts the general feeling of the movie into the perfect words. I rarely found myself engrossed with it, and I think it's because they weren't willing to make it in a mini-series or at least give it the extra twenty minutes it needed. I always felt a little like the movie was putting a hand between me and the screen, not letting me truly focus my eyes on it like you focus your whole energy when you're reading the book. The books are fully integrated because they cover every necessary aspect of life, and how Harry feels, and they give those feelings time to realistically develop. The film on the other hands fews more like a collection of photos that capture only a mere moment from reality.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Film) *** 3/4
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book) *****
Right on the heels of the monumental and incredibly awaited release of the conclusion to the Harry Potter saga Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes the fifth film installment of the popular series. The last book being released, really, just in time for them to be able to have enough time to make a film out of it with no delay. There has always been talk, since the third film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that Warner Brothers always intended to replace Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) with younger actors. If they did, (they won’t as all three actors will officially return for the last two films) it would likely be all but the ruin of the movie adaptions of the series. Maybe not commercially, but probably quality wise.
In the most simple terms, those three actors and a host of other teachers and students are what continue to make the films worthwhile. While with every installment J.K. Rowling improves greatly, writing novels that cease to be children’s literature at all, but instead works that inspire and move people of all ages to line up to wait for it. Teenagers, parents, and grandparents often seem to enjoy it and get more out of it on a higher level than the children who it was originally intended for. (Which is exactly what Narnia did on a smaller level.)
With each film installment the book-reading audience of the film finds more and more crucial and precious plot points missing, or haphazardly pasted as a mere shadow of an afterthought. In other words, a eight hundred page epic masterpiece should not be made into a two hour and twenty minute film any more than Bleak House, a near thousand page masterpiece also, should be made into anything other than a long miniseries (Bleak House clocks in at a little under eight hours.) Give each of the last four books an approximately five or six hour miniseries and you’d be doing the work it’s only real justice.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the first directed by David Yates who will return for the sixth film, has its moments which are sometimes interestingly unique from the vision of the book. A story which mirrors such political events as the French revolution is the stuff Yates is interested in and it’s during these moments where Order of Phoenix is most at home. Take the first scene within the Ministry of Magic which Yates turns into a bustling stock broker kind of place, with goblins (who in Harry Potter are not the standard equivalent of Tolkien’s, but little stern eyed kind of creatures who look down upon you even though you may be a full three and half feet higher than them) hurriedly talking business with the men who tower over them. Then we come to the looming, Hitler type, black and white moving poster (all the pictures in this world are like little video screens) of Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic.
The fourth film, Harry Potter and the Triwizard Tournament ended with Harry’s bold witness to Voldemort being back, in a sort of slitted, subhuman form, as the whole school watched him appear before them with Cedric Diggory’s body in his arms. Phoenix picks up, more or less, there where we learn that the Ministry of Magic has denied Voldemort’s return, and is painting Harry Potter and Dumbeldore as liars who want the people to feed on fear so that they may obtain power. Cornelius suspects Dumbeldore of wanting his position, forgetting, of course, the fact that he denied it many times preferring to stay away from politics, and remain headmaster of Hogwarts.
The parallels, I suppose, are in the book but the film makes them come alive. After narrowly avoiding being expelled on the grounds that Harry unnecessarily performed magic in front of a Muggle (non magic folk) and nearly half of the court not believing his claim that he only performed magic to save himself and his cousin from the attack of a Dementor, a ghastly, evil creature which sucks the life and happiness out of everything. The ministry has control of the Dementors (who guard the wizard prison Azkaban) and points out that either Dumbeldore is suggesting the ministry sent the Dementors to attack Harry, or that they are under the control of some other force, are in the trust and service of someone else than the Ministry of Magic.
Arriving at Hogwarts the students learn that the ministry has appointed Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and that the ministry supports a strictly theoretical, hands off approach to otherwise practical learning. Fudge fears that there will be a rebellion lead by Dumbeldore, and with the ever present looming threat of the worsening conditions and mysterious disappearances (which are blamed on Harry’s innocent godfather Sirius Black) Harry is convinced to lead a sort of secret society, which they humorously title Dumbeldore’s Army - confirming, I suppose in a way, the minister’s greatest fear.
The film generally jolts the audience around from one key even to another, with no time in between for character or charm, or anything. The only progression of time we get is the scenes in the classroom lead by Harry, where in the space of about five minutes, we see the whole class improving greatly. These moments are well intentioned and neat, but the meat of the book is missing. Where’s the Quidditch? (Ron made the team), where’s the friendship and classrooms and teachers?, where’s the looming stress of the Ordinary Wizarding Levels Tests? (O.W.L’S), and very simply where’s the very thing that Rowling has a genius for: progression.
Harry Potter has enchanted the world because Rowling has created characters we care about and love. Because she’s created a school that is so wonderful and magical, and full of surprise and joy, but when you strip her sense of time and the daily, ordinary, (although it is extraordinary, and magical) things what do you have left? You have only the barest bones of the plot, the background. The genius of Harry Potter is that with every book its world darkens, but even in the darkest of times life must continue in some semblance of "normal." Sports most go on, exams must be held, friendships must be stressed, and all the turmoil outside where they live, maybe in another country, must meet the turmoil and stress and hardships inside.
In the book there’s a constant question of where is Hagrid? But in the film we feel, if not think, that he’s only been gone a half hour because we don’t have any scenes showing the effect of Hagrid missing, and his friends fear and apprehension surrounding him and why he is late. Then, of course when he does return the film misses out on one of the coolest things in the book, the story of his attempts to persuade the giants to be on Dumbeldore and not Voldemort’s side.
Oh, and what about Dumbeldore. In the book he unexplainably won’t look at Harry, won’t talk to him, walks away from him anytime he comes near to him. Harry has questions, Harry wants to know the truth beyond the turmoil and the lies of Fudge and the Daily Prophet, but Dumbeldore won’t see him, and when, as in the second film, he goes missing from Hogwarts we should see Harry more alone than ever, but we don’t. Between Dumbeldore leaving and returning there’s no story to make those emotions or story register with the audience.
The movie rushes through these things with little sense of weight, acting like we’re watching something of no real consequence. A stark contrast to the book and its awareness to Harry and his friends feelings and troubles. When we do ‘see’ these things its in a fragment of a line of dialogue, or cut and pasted moment. Take one of the darkest and saddest moments of the film, Harry and the Weasley’s visit to St. Mungo’s hospital, where we see first hand the effects of torture enacted by Voldemort and his followers. The crucial scene is cut, with only a short, by necessity barely effective scene because instead of seeing something we are instead told briefly about it in passing.
At the end of the novel and near the end of the film a revelation is made about a prophecy concerning Harry Potter and Voldemort. Without spoiling anything (the film takes the liberty of excising some very important details regarding the prophecy) the prophecy basically says this: "And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives." Although neither can truly live with the other survives, the characters, nonetheless, must live. Normal life, normal charm, normal struggles, normal people (you hardly consider them characters) is what Harry Potter is about. The film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix should be more about that struggle. It should be about three friends who are being thrust into a place and a world where there is no shelter, and there will be no rest. And yet, you must wake up in the morning, and go to school, and you have to do something, and you have to learn something, so that there might once again be peace.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about on par with the last three Potter films (the first two included almost every detail from the book) and there’s moments where it feels truly great, but a lot of the film is clouded by its necessity of mistake. There were few moments were I was fully engrossed, and for a large part of the film there was always a track running in the back of my mind, that said this conversation is rushed, this scene is sliced up to an ultimatum, and this is "so much better in the book." Even the action packed conclusion, which should and could have been better in the film (Rowling has gotten much better at it but one of her weaknesses is action), is cut in half and changes are made that are certainly not for the better.
The real tragedy is that those people who don’t read the book (I really think that we’d be happier if everyone did) are given only a glimpse of the work’s brilliance, and that the are denied the opportunity of a first class film. Even thirty minutes could have greatly improved the film, as it would have given more weight and time for the scenes we see, and some time for others which would simply make us feel more progression, and less like we’re being jolted around as in a roller coaster about to make its descent.
That being said, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix makes you want to do one thing, read the books again, and stand at a bookstore on midnight to read this great and important series conclusion. It’s also funny how, as the day of Hallows release fast approaches, the scariest thing in the world it now bombs or terrorism, but the idea of having the last book spoiled before you’ve had a chance to dwell in it’s every page. That there are people who could do such at thing as reveal, hypothetically, the books ending, and that there are fans desperate and with no self control well -it’s a dark world but we still have to live, a thing the film verso of Phoenix forgets.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

July: Harry Potter Month

July is a great month. I have oficially christened July Harry Potter month, and that is what it will henceforth be called.

There's probably a lot of people out there who will still refuse to consider the Harry Potter series literature but putting that aside one can't deny it's success, and it's ability to make kids read a series in which several of its entries near a thousand pages. We have the fifth film in the series Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the likely final conclusion to the series which we've awaited so eagerly with tears of joy and tears of sadness, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within a week of each other.

J.K. Rowling's greatest strength is in her characters, and the way she progresses them through the months and the years. The movies have departed from the central thesis of her books, by streamlining and chopping the plot and making it into a thriller, when nearly every one of Rowling's actual novels is a thing of commonality. It's about daily life, it's about school at Hogwarts, which is indeed a magical school. Because, for every five hundred pages of character progression, of daily events sweet, and sad, and funny there is a mere one hundred for action. Yes there are ominous things always occurring, but then again every day there are sad things which we don't see unless we turn on the news. Hogwarts began as a place of shelter, and now in the seventh book we suspect it will be a place which is no longer a shelter, but a place that can no longer belong because, unles evil is defeated, nothing can ever be safe again.

With every book the Potter series has become, in my opinion, much less of a children's series than such plain good literature. It's created characters you care about just as good as Dickens did, it's created humuour that is not cheap but endearing and well remembered, just as Dickens and others did, it has created a world that, for all its impossibilities, (the very idea of apparation, appearing somewhere in a second causse a whirlstorm of problems, imagine if anyone from any country in the world could suddenly appear in New York this very moment. National Security would be impossible) is at its core truthful. It's a book that's scary, and imaginative, and makes you cherish every page and every chapter with more love every time you read it. Rowling has produced some of the only thousand page books that you will read in a week, or less. That you will want to read the whole series again, at least twice a year.

The only reason to see the movie is for the effects, and the music, and the drama and it's greatest accomplishments which is that Emma Watson is hermione and Daniel Radcliffe is Harry potter, and so on and so forth. Each installement becomes more and more dense and joyful, that to do any real justice to the novels beginning with the third an epic miniseries would be needed and, based on everyone I've asked, very much preferred. Or, at least a Lord of the Rings like effort which is to say, the film will be three hours and thirty minutes, and another hour and thirty minutes for the extended edition.

If there's one time when I cried at a movie it was at the very end of Return of the King not so much because the ending was sad, althugh it was in a beaitiful way, as that the journey was over, and was to be no more. Harry Potter, in my opinion, is just as much if not more an accomplishment as Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis' Narnia is. Because it's more about character and truth than anything. The most wonderful thing of all in a novel, is to while reading the sad, stirring, and if Rowling's opinion is anything, best and utter culmination of the entire series, will be thinking back when it's all over and all 756 or so pages of Hallows of the time when Harry first got on the platform 9 and 3/34 and you got on with them, to follow them for seven years, to see them argue and fight, and cry and to think which one of these friends which we have so much cherished will die is too sad a thought to think, to great a thought, because the world and characters Rowling created have become as real as any work of fiction can become, and will, as only literature and not film or television can, enchant people a hundred, two hundred years from now, just as the best of Dickens, of Bleak House of Our Mutual Friend do. And that, is why Harry Potter is a work of literature of great importance and strength and simplicity.

Thank you, thank you, J.K. Rowling for the world and the characters you have given to us.