Harry Potter: The Exhibition!

As an avid fan of the Harry Potter series (the idea of Harry was conceived in 1990, the same year I was born, so I like to think we’ve both been around the same amount of time), I could not have been more excited to hear that props, costumes, and set pieces from the movies would be on display in a traveling exhibit. I nearly screamed (actually, I might have) when I learned that my beloved Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago would be the first recipient of the magical memorabilia. With school nearing and my summer time ticking away, I jumped at the opportunity to see it today when, just last night, at nearly midnight, a couple of friends asked me to go.

Now, I’m as much of a textual purist as any rabid fan, so I understand all the complaints against the movies. I’ve been guilty of wrinkling my nose in the theater and whispering agitated criticisms to my friends on premier day about this plot deviation or that inconsistency. But nitpicking aside, the movies always held for themselves a certain degree of magic. They captured the spirit of the books and gave us faces and rooms and gizmos to fit the text in the windows of our minds. And no true Potter fan can snipe against the truly remarkable detail, authenticity, and craftsmanship that turned text to pictures to reality.

The Exhibition is a phenomenal tribute to the people behind the actors. In the Museum lobby, the cheery blue Ford Anglia greets visitors on their way up the escalators to the waiting area, where a few charming Brits keep the crowd entertained with Harry Potter trivia (I admit, I whispered all the answers and my friend laughed and rolled her eyes). Then you’re ushered in to see the Sorting Hat, which announces houses for a few brave volunteers (I was already clearly a Ravenclaw in my nifty t-shirt, thank you). Then, a brief montage of memorable Potter scenes ushers you past the Scarlett steam engine into the portrait hall, where the Fat Lady welcomes you to Hogwarts.

From there, you can walk at your leisure through a maze of scenes furnished with genuine costumes, props, set pieces, and replicas, labelled and described for the amateur and connoisseur alike. The path takes you through Harry’s dorm, a collection of classrooms, a Quidditch gallery with an interactive Quaffle challenge, Hagrid’s hut, the Forbidden forest, the Great Hall, and a variety of others–so realistically fit together that you can mentally place yourself right into each scene. I sadly surveyed Snape’s signature black robes and shuddered next to Umbridge’s hot-pink torture chamber, gushed over racing broomsticks, gaped at Robbie Coltrane’s vast Hagrid costume, and reached the gift shop with a fervent desire to reread every book and rewatch every movie.

For the well-versed fan, it is a walk through the annals of a personal and shared history, preserved and presented like ancient relics for devotion. For the casual fan, it is an amusing and worthwhile behind-the-scenes peek at the pieces that build the on-screen world. Even a Potter amateur can appreciate the intricacy and care of the design and the craftsmanship.

If you find yourself in Chicago between now and September 27th, visit this remarkable exhibit at MSI. A satisfying walk-through takes just over an hour, and for the truly Potter-starved, [i]Half Blood Prince[/i] is playing on the MSI Omnimax screen. After that, the Potter legacy will make its next stop at Boston’s impressive Museum of Science. For more information, check out the official site.


Underrated Movies: Part 1

Some movies hit the top of the blockbuster list instantly because they’re just that great. Others catch a few nods from the critics but amass huge cult followings. Then there are those underappreciated gems that, while being entertaining and well-written, are side-lined while such shameful offerings as Mall Cop rake in mindless viewers. (Yes, believe it. Mall Cop was the longest running movie at my local theater. It makes me cry inside too.) So, here are a few movies I’ve come across that deserve more than just a passing glance in the five dollar video rack.

In no particular order:

1. Hostage – Police negotiator Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) thinks he’s talking three juvenile delinquents out of holding two suburban kids for ransom. The delinquents think they have an easy payday from the kids’ wealthy father. But when the source of daddy’s illegal funds gets involved, Talley finds himself dealing with two hostage situations: the wealthy swindler’s family, and his own. Fast-paced, with a strong script and sympathetic characters, it will keep you guessing.

2. The Butterfly Effect – Ashton Kutcher never struck me as the dramatic type, but his role in this sci-fi thriller is poignant, believable, and compelling. It opens on Evan, a troubled mental patient who has spent his life repressing his most painful memories. When he finds a way to access and relive these lost scenes, he thinks he has the key to saving himself and the girl he can’t forget–but with every change he makes, the future alters in ways he could never forsee. Dark, eerie, and cleverly put together, with an ending even Hollywood can’t sugarcoat.

3. Garden State – Romantic comedy meets indie meets drama. After ten years of absence, Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff) returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Desperate for meaning, he takes a break from the numbing pills forced on him by his father and finds real life experiences in his oddball old friends and a quirky, equally troubled girl named Sam (Natalie Portman). The plot builds slowly, but the characters are unique and lifelike players in a story balanced by touching drama and understated humor.

4. Labyrinth – What do glam rock, Jim Hensen, and leather pants have in common? This bizarre fantasy musical featuring Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, and a supporting cast of cute and creepy muppets. When Sarah accidentally sends her crying baby brother to the clutches of the Goblin King, she has 13 hours to find him in the center of an impossible maze before the King turns him into a goblin. But don’t be fooled; this is no children’s movie. Sarah’s search is fraught with sinister enemies and suspicious allies in a place where even the walls are determined to trap her forever.

5. Anastasia – In an age of helpless Disney princesses with superficial love affairs, Don Bluth offered a compelling and fantastical answer to the mysterious disappearance of a real-life royal. Dimitri (John Cusack) is a con-artist with a get-rich-quick scheme–return the lost Grand Duchess to her surviving family for a pretty reward. Anastasia (Meg Ryan) is a spunky, self-reliant tomboy with a striking resemblance to the missing girl. When Dimitri meets her and convinces her that she must be the real Anastasia, neither of them know that she really is the lost Duchess, or that the dastardly fiend who killed her family is back to eliminate her. An updated fairytale with a competent heroine, a realistic romance, and songs that will be stuck in your head for months.

Happy viewing! And soon, Part 2.

Coraline: Movie Review

When I was just a little girl, full of childhood whimsy, one of my favorite, favorite movies was The Nightmare Before Christmas. Maybe I was a morbid little kid, but there was something about those eerily stylized characters, the haunting melodies, and the fancifully sinister plot that made me watch it over and over. Jack and Sally were my Romeo and Juliet. Halloween Town was my Oz. So, naturally my first peek of the Coraline trailer dredged up all that comfortable nostalgia. Wrapped like a burrito in my comforter, I pressed play on the TV and prepared to be delighted.

I was immediately struck by the familiar artistic style, those odd-shaped claymation-style characters with their spindly limbs and soulful eyes–not to mention the meticulous detail put into the scenery, sweet and sinister, a Gorey Wonderland. As the first scenes of the movie played out, with Coraline’s introduction and venture into her new house, my heart fluttered a few worried beats. The characters were typical Henry Selick, off-the-wall and eerily endearing, but the plot in the first twenty minutes or slow was slow to develop.

Once it did, Coraline delivered all it promised. With a manipulative and beautifully ridiculous villain, carefully placed foreshadowing, and a mix of suspense, self-realization, and the touch of morbid flair that makes Selick so remarkable, it offered a plot both accessible to children and intricate enough for adults. Some of the punchy jokes and racier scenes would probably scare off most parents and the macabre mood and nightmarish animation might traumatize some sensitive children, but I know that the five-year-old me would have worn out the DVD (VHS, then!). While Nightmare will always own my black little heart, Coraline has definitely earned a place on my shelf.