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.