Saturday, November 27, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (5/5)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with several Death Eaters, flying through the air while enveloped in plumes of dark mist (like the children of Lost’s smoke monster), wreaking havoc in the world of muggles. Not only do they bust up a magic shop, but they also down a bridge in London, killing untold numbers of pedestrians. If you had any doubts that The Half Blood Prince would continue the sinister atmosphere of the previous installments, then the first few moments of the film should put those doubts to rest with a swift knock to the head. This time out Voldemort is at full power and his minions have free reign over their world and ours.

Each Harry Potter film contributes one piece to the overall puzzle regarding Voldemort’s past and Harry’s role as his Achilles heel (or would he be the arrow that can pierce the Achilles heel). In The Half Blood Prince the new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn, holds that next piece. Dumbledore recruits Slughorn for the upcoming school year in hopes that he will divulge a conversation he once had with Voldemort, known at the time as Tom Riddle, before his transformation into pure evil. Slughorn views his job as more than just a teacher in a classroom. He also establishes a coterie of young wizards and wishes who he believes it is his duty to fashion into adults. Harkening back to an earlier time, Slughron is the type of professor who would call the special something he recognizes in these students as “character.” In a bit of espionage, Harry must creep his way underneath Slughorn’s wing in hopes to uncover the secret conversation.

This time around, the melodrama of high school dating is pushed to the forefront, but unlike in previous films these aren’t moments the viewer must endure to get to the world of magic but rather enjoyable in their own right. The appeal of the Harry Potter series has always been its marriage of fantastical adventure with the everyday drama of grade school. But until The Half Blood Prince the quotidian half of that equation has always paled in comparison to the otherworldly. One of the joys of this lengthy series of films has been the evolution of the three main actors from passable children stars to the ideal embodiment of their characters. The Half Blood Prince also provides all three actors some great ensemble and individual moments to work with. Much of the high school plotline stems from a love triangle between Hermione, Ron and Ron’s new squeeze Lavender. Just as Hermione has come to realize her feelings for Ron, he has found someone new. (Although, I just can’t picture those two getting old together. I imagine Ron wearing a wife beater in front of the television while Hermione fetches him another Natty Light from the fridge). Harry, likewise, reaches the age where he’s ready to start dating, but has yet to recognize Ginny Weasley’s longtime crush on him.

Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of The Half Blood Prince is how the minutia of high school life becomes a major plot point. We all remember the used textbooks that were seemingly passed down from time immemorial and filled with scribbling, often obscene, of different penmanship. Well, Harry discovers one such used textbook for his Potions class that contains perfections on even the textbook’s recipes as well as some other magical tips. As a reader, I absolutely love the central place books take in the world of Harry Potter, from Tom Riddle’s diary to the importance of the library (Hogwarts just wouldn’t be Hogwarts if they had the internet). As a blockbuster children’s author, J.K. Rowlings appears to be establishing physical books as objects of value that are just as magical as any spell or potion.

The Half Blood Prince is the film where all of the elements of a Harry Potter film—the ingenious magic spells, the battle between forces of good and evil, the childhood romance—all finally come together, like a supernatural potion, into a perfect brew. The genius of J.K. Rowling is that, instead of writing sequels for a new wave of eight year olds every other year, she let her books mature with her audience, allowing her characters, plot and prose all grow along with the children who may have read the first book when they were even younger than Harry in his first adventure. In The Half Blood Prince, for example, the character of Draco Malfoy, who had always been a nasty little pipsqueak, must decide whether he is more loyal to Hogwarts or to the Death Eaters. In earlier installments it was always clear that Draco served as one of the villains, but as the stakes have risen, even the more wicked characters have trouble contending with the consequences or their actions.

Likewise, with each installment the films have displayed stunning visual complexity to match the emotional density. And the visuals for The Half Blood Prince are perhaps some of the best of the series. The director, David Yates, utilizes the byzantine angles of Hogwarts castle to cut and dissect the space between multiple characters, illustrating the levels of intrigue that are simultaneously occurring at the expansive Hogwarts compound. The framing owes much to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, another film that takes place within the cold confines of a castle. The color palate of the film mimics a daguerreotype tan, giving the movie an atemoporal timelessness. The world of Hogwarts has always been a bricolage of differing time periods, combining medieval signifiers, like wizards and castles, with memorabilia from the 1940s. To move from the world of the muggles to the world of magic is as much a movement in time as it is a movement in space.

It is often cited as a critical truism that The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the series (although, this is not necessarily the case for fans of the book). I can understand why so many critics make this assertion, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is indeed one of the top films of the series, but I truly believe that The Half Blood Prince takes the prize for the best film in the franchise. Azkaban is a success for two reasons: 1) it was the first instance of a textual and emotional maturation of the series and 2) the film stripped away much of the grade school drama that had gummed up the works in past installments, making the first Harry Potter film that felt like a large scale blockbuster, even if its running time was slightly shorter. The reason why The Half Blood Prince is an even better film than The Prisoner of Azkaban is because instead of hiding from some of the soap opera elements of past installments, the film chose to strengthen those aspects of the story, making the viewer just as concerned with who Harry might end up dating as they are with whether or not Harry and Dumbledore will find the correct enchanted object to stop Voldemort. With the sixth film in the series, director David Yates has finally positioned Harry Potter as a fantasy world of cinema to be considered alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and The Princess Bride. You might disagree with whether or not these films deserve a place next to these esteemed films, but as the series draws to a close it is impossible to ignore their place within the genre of fantasy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (4.5/5)

When last we left our hero, Harry Potter, he had just faced a newly repowered Voldemort 2.0. So it’s a puzzling turn of events when Harry returns to Hogwarts only to discover that he has been branded a liar and that Voldermort’s existence has been vehemently denied by the Ministry of Magic. Harry’s role as an inventor of canards has turned him into an outcast at Hogwarts where the other students look at him askance and openly doubt his story. But even as the Ministry denies the impeding threat, a secret organization called The Order of the Phoenix has set out to defend itself against Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

There are duel villains in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not only must Harry worry about Voldermort from without, but he must also contend with the Ministry of Magic from within. As is often the case with a new Harry Potter film, there is also a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This time the new professor, Delores Umbridge, has been generously provided by the Ministry, and she immediately sets changes in the curriculum and the school rules. The Ministry is fearful that Dumbledore is amassing an army of teenagers, so Umbridge does away with all experiential learning, prohibiting the students from using magic in class and relying on textbooks alone.

Delores Umbridge is the type of villain who appears tailor made to get under your skin. She wears bright pink outfits that seem to have been shipped from the early 1960s. She always doles out punishment with a healthy smile on her face. And, she covers the walls of her office with the kinds of collectible plates you can buy at 2am on the Home Shopping Network. Of course, each plate depicts a mewling kitten that actually mewls. As far as movie villains go, Umbridge is once removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nests’s Nurse Ratchett. Characters like these are so self-satisfied with their type of oppression, often branded with a smiley face, that the audience cannot help but anticipate their downfall.

In response to Umbridge’s restriction on using magic, the Hogwarts students set up their own secret club where Harry, who has the most experience in battle, teaches his peers how to attack with and defend against magic. After years of Harry being used as a game piece in a series of long cons, it’s refreshing to see him and his fellow students actively prepare themselves against Voldermort and his minions. Not only does this underground magic club help groom Harry into a leader, but it also heals rifts between Harry and his classmates who had come to doubt his warnings about Voldemort.

Harry’s preparation for the battles ahead does not stop with a secret student organization. Dumbledore tasks Professor Snape with preparing Harry against mental incursions by Voldemort. It is still unclear exactly what the connection between Harry and Voldermort is, but it results in a psychic connection between the two enemies that may be used as a weakness. Snape’s training takes on the form of torture, similar to those in the military who undergo different “enhanced interrogation” techniques in order to inoculate them when they are employed by the enemy.

Snape has always been one of my favorite professors at Hogwarts, and it’s not only because of Alan Rickman’s commanding vibrato. Even in the earlier installments, where the line between good and evil was much starker, Snape was a character who ultimately did the right thing despite whatever darkness lingered in him. Here we are given a reason for why Snape is always in such a foul mood. During one of their interrogation sessions, Harry turns his powers against Snape and discovers, hidden in his memories, that a much younger Snape used to be an object of teasing and torture for Harry’s father. Instead of demystifying the character, this bit of back story actually further connects him with Harry. We understand that the two have a shared past, which extends before Harry was even born, and we now know both characters have similar demons festering inside of them.

As Harry admits to his godfather, Sirius Black, he has an anger growing in him. Sirius explains to Harry that there is no such thing as pure good and pure evil, that both exist within us and we must sort them out ourselves. This is a particularly touching scene because not only does it showcase a family connection between Sirius and Harry, but it allows Sirius to explain that he comes from a family of purists who looked down on mudbloods, children who are gifted with magical abilities but one or more of their parents are not magical. Sirius’s speech to Harry can be viewed as defining the difference between the first two Harry Potter films and the subsequent, darker installments.

The tighter structure of The Order of the Phoenix allies it with The Prisoner of Azkaban, which had a similar blockbuster feel. At times, however, it becomes apparent that The Order of the Phoenix had to amputate parts of the book in order to fit the film within the relatively short (for a Harry Potter film, that is) running time. There are many characters who are introduced but never fully positioned within the world. Many of these characters are members of the Order of the Phoenix, and because they serve as Easter eggs for the true fan and to supply depth to the universe of Harry Potter, reminding us that much more is going on beyond the halls of Hogwarts, these characters add rather than subtract from the film. (Although, in one awkward exchange a Goth looking witch tells Mad Eye Moody, without explanation, not to call her Nymphona for reasons that surely can only be deciphered by J.K. Rowling acolytes). However, other characters who occupy more running time appear to be shoehorned into the proceedings. Luna Lovegood, a witch who is a bit touched in the head, serves as a mirror to Harry’s own troubled past, but she’s lumped conspicuously into the story seemingly without reason. Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as Bellatrix Lestrange, the cousin of Sirius Black, is too small a part for such a well recognized actress. Both characters may be building towards something more important, but their inclusion here reminds the viewer that we are always receiving part of the story.

Despite the consistent quality of the Harry Potter films, they will always be, in part, companion pieces to the original books. The filmmakers are at once too deferential to the source material, afraid to discard with too much, and incapable of fully realizing the immensity of the books themselves. The Order of the Phoenix is as guilty of this as the other films, but ultimately it showcases one of the most propulsive plots in the series and ends with the most exciting climax yet. Perhaps it would be more than a tad greedy to ask for anything more.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (4/5)

Early on in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth adventure for Harry and his friends, longtime fans of the series will notice a distinct absence. Unlike in the past three films, The Goblet of Fire begins with Harry waking from a bad dream at his friend Ron’s house, rather than at Uncle Vernon’s suburban home. Alas, I cannot say I miss Uncle Vernon’s plump visage. Not only was he a domineering philistine, but Vernon also seemed like a cartoonish throwback to the first two installments. After the darker shades of The Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s difficult to see where Vernon might fit within the increasingly doleful series.

In many ways The Goblet of Fire fulfills the promises made by The Prisoner of Azkaban. Knowing that multiple directors have taken the helm of this series, I at first expected a radical swing in tone and style with each changing of the guard. I’ve been surprised to find that, despite the darker atmosphere in Azkaban, the evolution of the series has been deftly executed, suggesting a large amount of foresight. I’m sure much of the credit must go to the books. It is my understanding that Rowling let each installment grow along with her young readers.

The Goblet of Fire not only treads in a tenebrous atmosphere and storytelling, but it also manages to expand the scope of Harry Potter’s world outside the bounds of Hogwarts. We find that Harry is spending the night at his friend Ron’s house so that he can go see the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasley family. Here we are given a glimpse of the multitudes of wizards from around the world, from neighboring Ireland to distant Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the festivities are cut short when a legion of Voldemort’s followers, called The Death Eaters, make like quidditch hooligans and bust up the joint.

Back at Hogwarts, the school is gearing up for the Triwizard Tournament, an event where students from different schools compete in three tests of mental and physical acumen. The champions are chosen at random by a magical goblet that is perpetually ablaze. Each student who wishes to compete must write his name on a piece of paper and place it in the fire. On the appropriate day, the goblet will spit out the names of the chosen students. This year, however, only students seventeen or older may compete in the tournament (presumably getting insurance for the younger wizards is somewhat of a pain). A spell is even placed on the goblet to prevent those under seventeen from placing their names in the flame. And yet, when the time comes to choose the contestants, Harry Potter’s name is shot out of the goblet despite the fact he both never entered his name and was incapable of doing so.

How and why Potter was entered into the competition serves as the central mystery of Goblet of Fire, but, as with the other installments, Harry must also figure out the vagaries of growing up. The friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione is tested throughout. Ron becomes jealous of Harry when he is mysteriously entered into the Triwizard Tournament, and Hermione becomes miffed with Ron after he half-heartedly asks her out to the school dance. Not all of these conflicts are easily smoothed over, either. While Ron and Harry eventually come to an understanding, a similar truce is never made between Hermione and Ron. In fact Ron says a few things to Hermione that suggests he might be closet misogynist. Needless to say, strained friendships are a part of being a teenager. It’s to the film’s credit that the school dance is treated not so much as a rite of passage, but rather as the stiff and awkward social occasion that, for most, they are. Ron and Harry have difficulties finding partners for the dance, and when they do, it turns out the two boys are bad dates. Hermione attends the dance with Viktor Krum, one of the contestants in the Triwizard Tournament, but what could have been a resplendent evening turns ugly when Ron starts taunting her. Leave it to a Harry Potter film to avoid turning a middle school dance into an evening of magic.

Hogwarts once again hires a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Of all the rotating characters who have filled this position it is Goblet’s Alastar “Mad Eye” Moody who is perhaps my favorite. He gets his “Mad Eye” nickname from a false left eye that jets up and around, seemingly independent of its twin and capable of looking through the back of his skull (a useful skill for a teacher). Needless to say, he’s an eccentric character who shuffles about on a metal leg, tortures animals as a lesson for the class and brazenly takes swigs from his flask while in front of his students (my high school teachers at least hid their liquor in their morning cup of coffee). In other words, Moody seems like a fun guy to take on a night on the town.

Of course, the biggest surprise in the film is the final reveal of a fully recharged Voldermort. This time he’s not just some face on the back of someone’s head or a mystical projection. Without giving too much away, I will say that he is played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes. Interesting enough, one of the first things Voldemort does upon being released into the world is to go into a “what have you done for me lately” diatribe against his followers. When one of them protests that he helped Voldermort out of his exile, Voldermort sneers that this was done more out of fear than fidelity. I guess pure evil is codependence.

At the end of the film Hermione forlornly tells her friend, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” She might as well have been talking to the audience. As the films become increasingly bleak, it has become more difficult to tell where the story will take us. I for one, am curious to see where we shall end up.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (4.5/5)

Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of the Harry Potter series (other than the fact that they will make their way through all seven novels) is that, if the critics are to be trusted, the films have managed to maintain a certain level of quality even as several directors have passed the baton to the next man in line. If you think about other film series that made it out to seven entries or more, like Star Trek or Bond, then you’ll notice that they are marred by wild inconsistencies in quality. As the first film not directed by Chris Columbus, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban represented something of a test for the franchise. Despite his shortcomings as a director, Chris Columbus’s background in adventuresome family films at least presented him as an obvious choice as the director of the Harry Potter films. With The Prisoner of Azkaban there is a real question as to whether the franchise could continue with a new director at the helm.

And what a director! When Alfonso Cuaron, the first director to take over from Columbus, was tapped to make the next Harry Potter film he had just come off of his critically acclaimed Mexican film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, a story about teenage sexual exploration. I wonder how Harry Potter fans reacted to this news. My guess is that half of them thought Cuaron would make a film where Harry and Ron go on a road trip together only to discover sexual awakening while under the tutelage of an older witch. It turns out Cuaron did not implant an indie sensibility into the Potter franchise, but I am happy to say he did manage to inject new life into the series.

The Prisoner of Azkaban begins with Harry, once again, living with his aunt and uncle over the summer months. His Uncle Vernon has invited over his sister Marge for dinner while forcing Harry to play butler for the family. Marge is apparently not a fan of the Potters because not only does she insult Harry, but she also insults his mother and father. Ignoring the prohibition against using magic among the muggles, Harry lets his anger get the best of him and proceeds to inflate Marge like a large party balloon. He then quickly storms out of the Vernon household, suitcase in tow.

This opening scene is the first clue that the audience is in for some changes. The Prisoner of Azkaban is a darker film, both in its color palate and in its themes. After Marge is blown up into a balloon, we see her floating across the night sky like some low flying aircraft. Later we discover that she has been returned to her original state, but Cuaron momentarily allows audience to think she might live out the rest of her days bouncing from one skyline to another. The initial lingering question of Marge’s fate recalls other dark children’s films. In the original Willy Wonka, for example, the condition of each of the bad kids was left frighteningly ambiguous. This newfound darkness is reflected in the aesthetics of the film as well. Not only are there deeper shadows throughout the movie, but even Hogwarts’s uniforms are darker in shade.

This time around the villain is also suitably menacing. Each installment in the series has taken an opportunity to utilize some of Britain’s most prestigious actors, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is no exception. Not only do we get Emma Thompson as a teacher of divinations, Prof. Trelawney, but we also get Gary Oldman who plays Sirius Black, an escaped convict from the prison of Azkaban. (The name Sirius Black seems only one step removed from Oldman’s first major role as the punk legend Sid Vicious). Oldman has been fashioning his American accent for so long that I had actually forgotten that he was born a Brit. Black’s face is plastered on numerous wanted posters and newspaper pages. But because this is a realm of magic, Black’s image moves, like some sort of magical .gif, showing him screaming at his jailers (I like to think he’s saying “Eve-ry-one!”). In addition to an escaped convict, the Hogwarts gang must also worry about the likelihood of a roaming werewolf, making this the most Halloween themed Potter film yet.

While the film still stretches past the two-hour mark, The Prisoner of Azkaban feels much more streamlined than its predecessors. Strangely enough, it took an indie director to make the Potter films feel like a big budget action adventure. That’s not to say that the modest charms of Hogwarts and the camaraderie between the schoolchildren are missing. In one of the better scenes in the film we see Harry, Ron and other boys bond over magic candy that has the strange effect of causing one to growl like different kinds of animals. The scene barely lasts half a minute, but it is a wonderful reminder of what its like for boys to form friendships in their early teen years, attempting to impress and one up their mates. Alongside these smaller character moments (including Harry’s tutelage from a new Hogwart’s professor) Cuaron creates the longest and best executed action climax yet filmed for a Harry Potter movie. In the tradition of other great extended action sequences, like Return of the Jedi and The Seven Samurai, nearly the last hour of the film is a tense series of events that, while action packed, are also incredibly smart. I am loath to spoil the end of the film, but let me merely state that the climax of the film is as carefully constructed as the intricate gears of a pocket watch.

The previous Harry Potter films attempted to capture the wonder and magic of growing up and discovering what kind of world lies outside the bounds of your house, family and hometown. In this manner, the films are about more than just wizards and warriors. They also tried to capture the world through the eyes of a child. The Prisoner of Azkaban, however, is the first Harry Potter film that seems to be looking back at adolescence from the vantage point of adulthood. The darker tone of the film not only suggests the hard trials Harry must face as a wizard, but also the difficult times he must face as a teenager.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


M (5/5)

My reviews of the Harry Potter films will continue next week, but for now I'm going to take a break by giving you some thoughts on the Fritz Lang masterpiece M, starring Peter Lorre.

With his bugging eyes, lingering baby fat and perfectly round head, Peter Lorre’s face has become something of an unexpected icon. Lorre’s visage is such a strange molding that it has even become enshrined in a number of cartoons: Warner Bros. used his impression in a classic Daffy Duck cartoon, the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin concocted a Peter Lorre impression and a worm featured in the stop-motion film Corpse Bride bore a striking resemblance to the classic actor. Most of these representations of Lorre played up the creepy nature of his image. It should surprise no one, then, that Lorre’s first role was as a pedophile and serial killer in the Fitz Lang directed M.

Many film critics credit Lorre’s character in M as the first serial killer in cinematic history, a dubious, if somehow unsurprising honor. The film itself is less interested in the motivations of the serial killer, although they are touched upon, than in how his reign affects the citizens of the unnamed German city. There is no single main character in the film, leading one to suspect that Lang was interested in the living, breathing life of the city itself rather than a single stalwart investigator. Just as the M is the first serial killer film, it is also likely one of the first police procedurals.

Lang beautifully illustrates how the threat of this serial killer has upended the lives of the citizens, police and criminals alike. In the first scene we hear a chorus of children singing a makeshift nursery rhyme about the killings (a technique that has been copied many times since, most famously in Nightmare on Elm Street). Even as one mother complains about the grisly song, another comments that when they can hear their children singing, at least they know they’re still alive. The police have been chasing after the killer for months, but, as the police chief explains to a politician over the phone, the murderer has left no clues and any tips have turned out to be worthless. These murders have even hurt the criminal element of the city. As the police have increased their efforts to find the killer, they have also increased pressure on criminal establishments. In order to rid themselves of the law, the gangs have decided that they must first get rid of this killer.

These stories are woven together through several strategically employed film techniques. When both the police and the gangs lay out their plan for capturing the murderer, Lang deftly cuts back and forth between them. It becomes a race between the law and the criminals to find the killer first. Cutting-edge camera work further helps draw a line between many different characters who have little in common beyond their fearful reaction to the killer. Lang’s camera deftly movies around buildings and through windows, connecting disparate city space. M becomes much more than a story about a serial killer, but rather becomes how fear breeds in an urban environment.

There are few modern corollaries to M. The closest example in film might be David Fincher’s Zodiac, another film about a serial killer that is more concerned with those trying to capture the criminal than the criminal himself. However, the movie’s diffuse focus, its cast of dozens and its curiosity about the detailed workings of a city is also reminiscent of many HBO television shows of the last decade or so, especially The Wire. It’s become something of a cliché to say “they don’t make them like they used to,” so instead I’ll merely suggest that they’re still trying to make them like they once did.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (4/5)

It’s been a whole summer since we last saw Harry in his first adventure, The Sorcerer’s Stone. Since that time it appears as if he has spent his time doing the exact opposite of most school children, pining for the school year to begin. This changes when he suddenly discovers that an elf named Dobby has invaded his room. Dobby, a neurotic with a penchant for self inflicted harm, warns Harry that he cannot return to Hogwarts, lest he risks grave misfortune. Since it wouldn’t be a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts, Harry of course does not listen to the diminutive Dobby. Not even Harry’s cruel uncle, who puts bars on his bedroom windows, is able to keep Harry away from school, because soon Ron and his brothers bust their friend out of a permanent grounding with the aid of a vintage flying car.

Already one can tell that the second film will be an improvement over the cumbersome original. Instead of a drawn out introduction that takes place in the world of muggles (those who cannot wield magic), the film moves right along and breezily reintroduces us to the trio of friends, along with a more fleshed out background for each. We get to take a tour of Ron’s magical, but working class, house, and we discover that neither of Hermione’s parents are magical. And, even if most of the big secrets are being saved for latter installments, we learn a little more about Harry’s mysterious background and why he has the ability to talk to snakes.

For Americans, one of the chief appeals of the Harry Potter series is that the British setting is often as bizarre and mystifying as the world of magic: the characters send their children to boarding school, they drink tea socially and they are absolutely incapable of correctly pronouncing the word “schedule.” But perhaps the most interesting aspect of British society that sneaks into world of Hogwarts is the acute sense of class difference. In the last film Draco Malfoy appeared to represent the aristocratic classes, and here that theme is brought to the forefront. We even get to meet Draco’s father, who mocks Ron’s dad for working for what appears to be some sort of magician’s bureaucracy. Likewise, the big bad is also concerned with class purity. We learn that the founder of the Slytherin house once hid a chamber of secrets on the grounds of Hogwart’s, and should the chamber ever be opened it would rid the school of the mudbloods, those whose parents have no magical abilities, leaving Hogwarts to the purebloods.

As is the case with most sequels, the filmmakers pump up the main villain so he is a more menacing threat than in the last film. Following in the footsteps of some of the more famous serial killers, he has a penchant for writing messages on the wall in blood and stringing up cats. And no, the villain isn’t who you think he is. I too thought it might be Charles Manson, but, at the risk of spoiling the ending of the film, I will tell you that is not the case. (Although, if J.K. Rowling ever picks up her pen again, I think people would clamor for Harry Potter Versus the Manson Family). The stakes seem higher this time, and during the climax of the film Harry is now old enough to actually battle the villain rather than, as he did in the first film, relying on the power of his mother’s love, or some such nonsense.

Like all great sequels, The Chamber of Secrets deepens and enriches our understanding of the fantasy world thanks to additions both large and small. We are introduced to a new character, Gilderoy Lockhart, played by Kenneth Branagh, a famous magician and writer whose ego far outpaces his skills. We are keyed in on important moments in the history of Hogwarts, including the reason for the names of each house. Perhaps the coolest addition to the many magical artifacts in Rowling’s universe is a diary full of empty pages that can respond to written questions.

Of all the new magical toys, it is the flying car that speaks to the appeal of the books themselves. The allure of Rowling’s creation is that even though Harry’s a kid, he is still an active agent within the world of adults. Not only must he save the day, but he is often the only one who knows what is really going on in the halls of Hogwarts. For most children, driving a car is the ultimate symbol of the fun and freedom of adulthood, and perhaps the only thing better than driving a car would be driving a flying car. By putting Harry and Ron behind the wheel of the car, Rowling taps into most children’s first temptation to join the world of adults.

The director, Chris Columbus, seems more assured of himself this time around. In the last film the main plot would disappear for whole stretches at a time, as if Columbus had lost it under the couch. But here each random thread and subplot builds into the larger story. The result is that even though The Chamber of Secrets is longer than The Sorcerer’s Stone, it actually feels shorter. The action is also handled more deftly this time around. The quidditch match is much more dynamic, for example. The camera tilts and swoops just like the players themselves, making the game more kinetic. Just as George Lucas watched old footage of WWII dogfights in order to capture the same kind of energy during Star Wars’s space battles, Columbus likely watched Lucas’s Star Wars series in order to liven up his broom flights. The quidditch players are often seen flying in formation like the X-Wings before their assault on the Death Star and their broom chariots give off the humming sound of an engine the speeders in Return of the Jedi.

After watching the first film, I came away wondering what all of the fuss was about. Sure, there were some imaginative ideas, but it lacked the sense of adventure that elevates the greatest of fantasy films. While most of The Sorcerer’s Stone felt like a rigid sketch of the book, The Chamber of Secrets is the first movie in the series that feels as if it can stand on its own without knowledge of the book it’s based on.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (3.5)

Film adaptations must strike a tricky balance between dual demands: fidelity to the source material and obligations of the new medium. If you steer too far from the core ideas of the original story, then you betray those who loved the story long before it was green lit by a studio. But if you chain your film to the source material, then the end product might end up being a rote matter of connecting plot points. Sometimes those who love the original book or story tend to think that all a director needs to do is paste pages up on the big screen, but this ignores that different mediums, by necessity, must tell a story in different ways. Long exposition might be effective in a novel, but ideally a film communicates more concisely through visuals. In fact, one of my favorite adaptations, Blade Runner, not only departs wildly from the original book, but also seems to be arguing against it.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first film in a very long series of adaptations, never manages to strike an appropriate balance between the book and its new home in cinemas. From the beginning it becomes clear that this film is not for the uninitiated. It starts with several wizards arriving at an English suburb to drop off a young baby. We don’t know who these people are or why they need to drop off this youngster off at someone’s front door. The scene has a nice ambience to it and leaves enough questions to drive the film forward, but for someone who has not read the book, the question of the relationship between the baby in the basket and the family he is being left with becomes somewhat troubling. There is a long tradition in books and films of random babies being dropped off at someone’s door, so we cannot assume there is some relationship between the baby and those he is left with. It turns out they are his aunt and his uncle, but we don’t discover this until almost a half-hour into the film, shortly before Harry leaves for Hogwarts. This is a minor problem but it is indicative of an inability for the film to break from the novels and establish itself as a piece of art that can stand on its own two feet.

We may not know who this family is, but it becomes clear early on that they are not the ideal family for an orphan. They force Harry to live in a small closet under the stairs, and they clearly favor their biological son over the one left on their doorstep. Not only is Harry’s cousin spoiled beyond what is appropriate for a young child, but he also appears to be well on his way to contracting type-2 diabetes. Luckily, when Harry reaches an appropriate age, he is recruited into Hogwarts, a school for young wizards. This is something his aunt and uncle apparently dread, going so far as to move to the middle of nowhere to avoid the onslaught of acceptance letters from Hogwart’s. But this is to no avail, and Harry is recruited by Hagrid, a friendly, if slightly bumbling wizard, who has a difficult time keeping secrets when the plot requires a little more information in order to move forward. Soon Harry learns that both his parents were wizards, but that they were murdered when he was very young, requiring the cadre of wizards from the beginning to deposit Harry at his aunt’s and uncle’s.

Anyone who has read Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, or at least has seen Star Wars, can recognize the hero’s journey in this setup. The hero’s journey is when a seemingly provincial protagonist is plucked from the mundane world in order to cross over into the world of magic and adventure. Normally there is a guide who accompanies the hero as he traverses his way from the mundane to the magical. In Star Wars this guide was Ben Kenobi, and here it’s Hagrid. The appeal of this setup is instantly recognizable. Even if you were from the most well adjusted family, every child has felt persecuted by the seemingly arbitrary rules of adults. And who hasn’t felt as a child that you weren’t destined for some grand adventure in your lifetime?

Along the way to Hogwarts, Harry encounters the sociable Ron and the slightly uptight A-student Hermione. Upon arriving to Hogwarts, all three wind up in the Griffindor House, which means they will be competing against students from other houses for top prize at the end of the year. Hogwarts certainly owes more than a little something to the British private school system, and I would imagine a similar system of competition could feasibly exist in the childhood of many British subjects. Even the villainous student Draco, of the Slytherin House, has a haughty air of aristocracy straight out of George Orwell’s memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys.” (I’m giving little away when I tell you that Griffindor House wins the prize at the end of the year, but not before the headmaster, Dumbledor, lets Slytherin House think they have won. This was a rather cruel move on Dumbledor’s part and I half expected him to say “psych” before revealing that Griffindor won).

In addition to midterms, social cliques and getting to class on time, Harry and the gang must also worry about a mysterious object that is being housed within the deep recesses of Hogwarts. They learn that this magical object has the ability to free the villainous Voldemort (much like Dickens, Rowling likes to twist names so her audience is absolutely certain who is good and who is bad). The students are up against a teacher, Severus Snape, who they believe is planning on stealing the object in order to smuggle it to Voldemort.

There’s much to enjoy about this first installment in the Harry Potter franchise, not the least of which is the filmmaker’s intention of employing just about every great British actor imaginable (in addition to Robbie Coltrane and Hagrid, there’s Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Cleese and John Hurt). While the child actors aren’t always on the same level as their elders, within the spectrum of child acting from bad (Anakin from Phantom Menace) to good (Elliot from E.T.) they’re firmly within the middle. Of the three main characters, however, it’s Hermione who gets the most thankless role. She’s the student at the front of the class with her hand constantly in the air. It’s much easier to role your eyes at the A-student than to empathize.

But the real appeal of a film like this is being able to see the world of J.K. Rowling on film. Since I’ve never read the book, I can only compare this fantasy world to others. Rowling deftly cobbles together time honored fantasy creatures and concepts, but assembles them in such a way that they manage to be both familiar and new. The film paints Hogwarts as an ancient castle, but imbues it with a sense of kinetic energy. It is a place where ghosts roam the halls as leisurely as students, where paintings come to life and where staircases never stay in the same place twiece. Hogwarts, like an M.C. Escher drawing, appears to contain more space within its confines than is physically possible. Rowling has also created a fun, if slightly confusing, game called Quidditch, which is similar to rugby but on flying broomsticks.

Unfortunately, what really holds the film back is the direction. At two and a half hours Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a lengthy film, which by itself isn’t a problem. I’ve seen enough David Lean films to enjoy immersing myself in a story. And besides, part of the fun of a fantasy film is watching the filmmakers construct an entirely new world brick by brick. The length wouldn’t be a problem if the director was better skilled at creating atmosphere and urgency. The director is Chris Columbus who showed promise in the 80s by directing films like Adventures in Babysitting and writing Goonies and Gremlins. But since then he has become a third rate Spielberg with a higher tolerance for sentimentality. Columbus draws his character with big bright crayons so no one can forget for one second who we are supposed to root against. Harry’s uncle is grossly obese, Draco’s hair is slicked back like Gordon Geco from Wall Street, and even an opposing Quidditch player is given a mouthful of ungainly teeth.

It’s Columbus’s cumbersome direction, which stumbles from one scene in the book to another, that ultimately stifles the film. Instead of bringing the underlining mystery to the forefront of the movie, we are left to sight see in Rowlings world, which isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience, throughout most of the movie. This first installment in the Harry Potter series likely offers more for fans of the book to enjoy than for the uninitiated who wish for nothing more than a new fantasy classic.

Friday, September 03, 2010

An Expedition in Wizarding

In the following months I am going on a journey that will require incredible feats of stamina, strength and fortitude. With the impending arrival of the final two movies (or the one two-parter movie) in the Harry Potter franchise, I’ve decided to make my way through the entire series, hopefully in time to see the finale in theaters. Let me just get this out of the way to begin with: I’ve never seen any of the films before and I have never read any of the books. I won’t play ignorant, however. In this era of pop-culture saturation I’m vaguely familiar with the central concept (a boarding school for budding wizards) and some of the looks and characters from the film. I even know that a guy named Voldemort, played by the great Ralph Fiennes, shows up at some point as the big bad. But as far as the intricacies of this fantasy world, I’m largely in the dark.

Now, I haven’t been avoiding these films because of a kneejerk dislike of the either its popularity or the central conceit. I’ve been known to immerse myself in plenty of sci-fi and fantasy geekery. I’ve merely never gotten around to it. By the time I missed the first two movies in the theaters it seemed like a lot to catch up on, and almost everyone I know either has seen these films and refuses to invest the time in watching them again, or is just not interested. So why now? I’ll admit I was intrigued when I discovered that the third film in the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was directed by the great Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron also helmed the obscene Y Tu Mama Tambien and the pessimistic Children of Men. I was curious to see what the creator of a raunchy film about sex and a bleak dystopian film would do with a children’s story.

Furthermore, it is difficult for even detractors not to admit the accomplishment of creating eight (?) films that have a single narrative thread. From what I understand, each film is over two hours long, meaning the entire story, from beginning to end, is probably around twenty hours. Now, there have been both experimental and narrative films that have lasted for 24 hours or more, but I can think of few Hollywood cinematic expeditions that aim for this kind of epic length. Two factors probably made this lengthy series possible: the popularity of the source material and the advent of DVD. The former factor is obvious. The bean counters at the studio obviously saw the revenue from the book sales and knew there was an audience for eight two-plus hour long films featuring a kid wizard. The latter factor is less obvious. DVDs have in many ways changed the way Westerners have looked at narrative. This is especially true of television, where serialized stories like Lost can weave intricate plots without worrying about losing the audience because they can always return to the DVDs. This is also true of film. If a detail from an earlier Harry Potter film is important latter on, then I’m sure the audience is either aware of it thanks to repeat viewings or can return to earlier parts of the story thanks to how easy DVDs have made home viewing. In some ways this long form narrative is nothing new, but rather a return to the form of the serialized novel from authors like Charles Dickens.

So there you have it: essentially all of my knowledge and early impression of the Harry Potter series before I have watched even a single frame of the film. I’m certainly hoping to enjoy these films, because the moment I pop in the first DVD I don’t think there’s any point in stopping.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wolf Parade - Expo 86

Wolf Parade – Expo 86 (4/5)

Nostalgia is often a profoundly personal kind of wistfulness. A Proustian moment, after all, relies on our senses to stimulate deeply idiosyncratic memories. But there are times where nostalgia becomes a runaway meme, infecting a whole generation for decades at a time, and, as much as we would like to forget, there was a period of time in the early 21st century where we were all nostalgic for the eighties. Not only were we inundated with VH1’s nostalgia porn, but a slew of bands that were aping early eighties new wave (from Futureheads to Interpol to Hot Hot Heat) came out like a stampeding herd. Many of these bands were kind enough to move away from their eighties sound in a gambit for a larger audience which in turn allowed us to forget the indignity of once showing up to a party dressed like Ralph Maccio. Wolf Parade, who initially built their sound on bouncy keyboards, might have been lumped in with the new wave of new wave bands until their sophomore album, At Mount Zoomer, put those associations behind them. It is strange, then, that they have opted to trade in on nostalgia once again for their third album, Expo 86.

The album’s title is a reference to the 1986 World’s Fair held in Wolf Parade’s home country of Canada, and the album art is flanked on the front and back by children mugging for the camera in color washed Transformers-the-cartoon era photographs. This is a great example of how the entire album, from artwork to liner notes to the music itself, impacts how we listen to the music. The themes of nostalgia and childhood might not strike those who bought the mp3 version of the album as heavily as those who own the physical copy. The cover art might prepare the listener for Wolf Parade’s return to some of the aesthetics of their first album. While At Mount Zoomer dispensed with the keyboards filtered through a circuit board in favor of much a cleaner plucking sound of ivories, Expo 86 has brought back a more synthetic sound that harkens back to when the photograph of the front cover were taken.

In addition to an aesthetic return, the lyrics are full of longing for the past. The most obvious song to trade in on nostalgia is the Dan Boeckner penned song “Little Golden Age.” In addition to the song title, the lyrics speak to the pull of the past and the intersection between music and our adolescence: “Then you left town feeling pretty down / With your headphones and your coat and your dirty graduation gown you were / In the bedroom singing radio songs.” Much has been made of the difference between Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting. Often Krug has been represented as the more experimental and abstract artist while Boeckner has been described as the more conventional musician more concerned with traditional pop songs. This dichotomy isn’t accurate exactly, but here Boeckner’s more grounded lyrics become one of the strengths of the album. It’s his songs that thematically guide most of Expo 86. “Ghost Pressure,” a song whose very title invokes the idea of a lingering past, recounts a lover’s kiss on the suitably suburban sounding street of “Orchard road” while the song “Palm Road” (a theme is forming) is propelled by the driving beat of Springsteenian drums to summon the spirit of a teenage road trip. These songs are the bricks that build the foundation of Expo 86 and ensure that, despite the divergent personality of the two principle songwriters, this latest release by Wolf Parade is more than just a collection of disparate songs, but rather a cohesive work of art from start to finish.

If At Mount Zoomer was characterized by songs that took their time getting to their particular destination, then Expo 86 can be described as a work that goes straight for the jugular. The songs have an energy that can be exhaustive. This newfound concern with grabbing the listener by the lapels and yelling in his or her face is reinforced by the production, which, unfortunately, pushes every instrument to the top of the mix. There isn’t even a palate cleanser like “Fine Young Cannibals” or “Dinner Bells.” The result is a lack of dynamics. Fortunately, the strength of Wolf Parade’s songwriting manages to push through these slight problems. Expo 86 is proof that Wolf Parade is more than just some Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown songs thrown on a single album. Instead, it is a find example of how two artists can cause an indelible impression on the other.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Predators (3.5/5)

Predators was tasked with the impossible job of setting a bruised and battered series back on course while reminding people of the great film that christened the endeavor from the beginning. After the Aliens vs. Predator films regulated the predators to bystanders in the sub-hack-and-slash horror genre, it had become evident that it was time for something different. I’m pleased to say that, while hardly the classic of the first film, Predators manages to inject new life into a science fiction concept that is both exceedingly simple but also capable of a myriad amount of variation.

Predators begins with Royce (Adrien Brody) plummeting through the atmosphere, unconscious. He realizes that he has been equipped with a parachute that deploys automatically, saving us from an incredibly short film. Confused and lost, Royce finds himself in the middle of an unknown jungle, but still armed with whatever weapons were, presumably, on him before being whisked away. By starting in media res, the film shows the audience that it is interested in the same sort of lean, no nonsense storytelling of the first film. When Royce comes across several others who have been stranded along with him, including a Yakuza decked out in a full business suit, a wisecracking criminal, a female sniper, and, strangely enough, an ordinary primary care physician, among others, each character is drawn with nothing more than a quick sketch. We don’t need to know these guy’s backgrounds, we merely need to know that the series is going back to the mercenaries versus predators formula that has served it well in the past.

In one of the better scenes of the film, the stranded mercs come to a clearing to discover a series of strange moons and planets midway between waxing and waning in an alien sky. This is the twist that the predator sequels have been looking for ever since Predator 2 way back in 1990. By pushing the film outside of our solar system, the filmmakers have opened up a whole set of possibilities. The castaways not only discover that they are stranded on a game preserve (a twist that more closely allies the film with the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”), but also suggests that there is some sort of civil war brewing between the predators. While many of these ideas are not fully capitalized on, they still show a sense of imagination and an earnest attempt to show the audience something we haven’t seen in a predator film before. I especially enjoyed the showdown between the katana wielding Yakuza and a predator, a scene that begs the question, did the predators ever visit feudal Japan? Perhaps this can be explored in the sequel, Predatorses.

But even as the film attempts to show us something new, there is also a back to basics mentality in Predators. The events of the first film are even recounted by the sniper, Isabelle, who explains how Dutch managed to defeat a predator. This is a smart maneuver because it avoids unnecessary scenes in which the characters rediscover the strengths and weaknesses of the predators, finally catching up with the audience. It also tells us to ignore most of the sequels, suggesting that this is the true heir McTiernan’s original, a connection the film highlights each time Alan Silvestri’s original score swells. But Predators (plural) never quite matches the storytelling quality of Predator (singular). The tension between the castaways in Predators isn’t used as well as the tension between Dillon and Dutch’s team of mercenaries. The story itself seems somewhat episodic as the humans stumble along from one danger to the next, seemingly without a plan.

The biggest curiosity of the film, however, is perhaps the strange turn by Adrien ‘The Pianist’ Brody. There is a certain amount of logic behind casting the wiry Brody in the role, since Danny Glover was also a step down from the vein popping biceps of Schwarzenegger. I’m pleased to say that Brody handles the role of action hero well. Not only has he trained for the role, but he manages to affect a gravel crusted voice that gives off enough of an I-don’t-care attitude for us to believe that this Polish piano player is now a hardened killer. No, if there is any fault in the film it does not lie with Brody. It is the fact that the film, for all of its ideas, never fully comes together in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For many, this means there will be plenty of arguments about which is the true heir to the original film, Predator 2 or Predators.