Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2016)

18. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Last we saw Tim Burton, he had directed “Big Eyes,” an adult-skewing drama that was made with hopes towards winning an Oscar. Despite being a decent flick, it would strike out with Academy voters. After having his serious filmmaking dreams dashed once more, Tim Burton returned to the safe, welcoming arms of blockbuster film making. “Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children” is based off a young adult novel. Like many Y.A. adaptations, the film was made with the hopes of launching a franchise. Once again, we see the director painting a typical Hollywood script with his usual visual quirks.

His entire life, Jake’s grandfather has regaled him with stories about a magical house filled with extraordinary children. Each one had a strange ability, with a woman named Miss Peregrine watching over them. As a kid, he believed him. As a lonely teenager, he now believes his grandfather to be crazy. After receiving a startling phone call, he finds his grandfather dead, his eyes sucked out. Following a strange letter, Jake discovers his granddad’s stories were true. He discover the home of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children, kept in a time loop in the Welsh countryside. Jake is drawn into a world of adventure, as Peregrine and her kids are pursued by sinister forces.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” – has there ever been a more Tim Burton-y title? – filters a number of popular ideas through the director’s sensibilities. The concept concerns a wise adult overseeing a school occupied by uniquely gifted children, each one born with a different power or ability. Like, say, “X-Men.” Gifted young people learning to use their abilities also brings the “Harry Potter” series to mind, as does a seemingly normal youth entering a fantasy world. The time loop setting recalls “Peter Pan” and “Groundhog Day.” The villains are tall, skinny, pale, faceless, tentacled monsters in dark suits who prey on children. In other words, an exact quote of the Slender Man internet meme. Burton takes these well worn ideas and drowns them in gothic atmosphere, spooky touches, and quirky humor. This is a clear example of the director’s modern day work-for-hire mentality. You hire Tim Burton to add some Tim Burton flair to an otherwise typical project.

Yet all the spooky touches in the world couldn’t disguise the stock parts script. Once the villains are revealed, “Home for Peculiar Children” becomes a chase pictures. The heroes are on the run from the bad guys, hoping to rescue their house mother before the villains kill her. There is a time restrain in place, something about the kids being unable to stay outside the time loop for so long. In truth, all the talks of different time loops is very confusing. The characters seemingly leap from time period to time period, without much interior logic. Maybe I just wasn’t following things. But the rules of “Miss Peregrine’s” fictional universe seem ungainly and convoluted. It’s all in service of an unspectacular adventure narrative.

When the film works, it doesn’t focus on the Y.A. plotting. When settled into the weird world of “Miss Peregrine’s,” the movie becomes more interesting. A long portion in the middle focuses on Jake living with the Peculiar Children. We meet the quirky cast. The girl full of helium, the invisible boy, the burning girl, the child who broadcasts his dreams through a glass eye, the little girl with the mouth in the back of her head, and so on. We see them go about their day. One child uses her powers to grow giant vegetables. Another catches a falling baby squirrel at the exact same time every afternoon. At the end of the day, Miss Peregrine sets back the clock another twenty-four hours, sending an Axis bomb floating back into the sky. These sequences are kind of cozy, seeing unusual people make a life for themselves in their own strange world. I honestly wish Burton could’ve made a plotless film focusing on this environment, instead of moving on to the typical fantasy/adventure plot.

And our guide into this peculiar world is Asa Butterfield’s Jake. In some ways, Jake is a typical Burton-esque protagonist. At story’s beginning, he lives in a drearily mediocre Florida suburb. He’s a pale skinned outsider, an awkward misfit with no luck with girls. The biggest difference between Jake and “Beetlejuice’s” Lydia or “Frankenweenie’s” Victor is Jake isn’t interesting. Asa Butterfield, still best known for “Hugo,” adapts a ridiculous American accent. He wearily walks from scene to scene, reacting to the crazy things happening to him. Eventually, we learn that Jake has powers of his own, a unique ability to see monsters. This seems like a last minute attempt to make the character compelling. The film should’ve been about Miss Peregrine or her adoptees. Butterfield’s Jake is a snore.

Tim Burton has cycled through several dark haired, gothic muses. Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Lisa Marie, and Helena Bonham Carter have all come and gone. Now it seems the director has latched himself to Eva Green. Green was the best part of “Dark Shadows” and now she’s the best part of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Miss Peregrine’s magical ability is over time. This leads to an punctual attitude, demanding a similar exactness from everyone around her. She snaps a pocket watch open and close through the film, to emphasize this. She brings a strict body language to the entire part, a perfect diction to her dialogue. Green balances these aspects with a wry sense of humor, displayed through a rakish smile or perfectly timed nod. When the character is captured mid-way through the film, it suffers.

Burton fills the cast with recognizable character actors. Such as Terence Stamp as Jake’s grandfather and Judi Dench as another leader of a peculiar household. Or Chris O’Dowd as the boy’s doddering father, Allison Janney as his stiff psychiatrist, and Rupert Everett as an effete bird watcher. While all the performers do good work, the peculiar children show more potential. The cast is too large, with twelve children under Peregrine’s watch. Most of them are just gimmicks, like the super-strong girl or the boy with bees in his stomach. Others just serve plot purpose, such as the invisible boy or the girl with the green thumb. Yet occasionally an interesting performer emerges. Ella Purnell shows some charm as Emma, the helium girl. Lauren McCrostie gets a few notable moments as Olive, the pyrokinetic. Hayden Keeler-Stone displays some humor as Horace, the glass-eyed boy. Finlay MacMillan probably gives the best performance of the kids as Enoch, the moody boy who can resurrect the dead.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” didn’t receive much attention when it was released this past summer. What people did notice about it was its villain. Samuel L. Jackson plays Mr. Barron, the shape-shifting bad guy who extends his life by eating the eyes of peculiar children. Jackson hams it up as usual, doing what he can to distinguish the part. What upset people was the film making its sole black character the villain, preying on the lily-white cast of heroes. I don’t think Burton or anyone else meant anything by this choice. It simply reflects Burton’s suburban view point, which is predominantly white. But the implications are unfortunate, to say the least.

Long stretches of “Miss Peregrine’s” are forgettable. It’s most memorable moments are the ones that reflect the director’s style the most. Enoch uses his death-defying abilities not to bring the sick back to death. Instead, he reanimates little morbid dolls, making the monsters fight for his amusement. (He references a past habit to do the same with corpses.) Later in the film, he brings too life a derelict boat full of skeletons. In Burton’s most recent homage to Ray Harryhausen, the skeleton warriors leap around, defending the heroes. While CGI is subbed in for stop motion, the effect is similar. Watching the skeletal goofballs get torn apart or leap around is infectiously fun. I wish the film had more fun stuff like that.

Burton’s tendencies as a filmmaker is apparent in other ways too. My favorite scene without skeletons involves a trip into a sunken ship. The slow motion dive down is well executed and the flooded interior is oddly eerie. A flashback shows Jackson altering his comrades with a mad scientist get-up that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sci-fi flick. One of his allies is shown to be a monkey woman, a bizarrely memorable touch. The climax of the film is set among a seaside carnival. The dark ride features prominently, as you’d expect. There’s a surprisingly lack of black and white spiral or jaunty tubas on the soundtrack. (Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson compose the score, presumably because Danny Elfman was busy.) Yet Burton’s aesthetic shines through anyway.

Some times, it even feels like Tim was trying to make a horror movies for kids. Aside from the skeletons and reanimated corpses, there are other grisly components. The villains’ habit of eating eyeballs is lingered on to a creepy degree. Among Miss Peregrine’s brood is a pair of creepy twins, with pale skin and clown-like faces. Later, we discover their masks cover petrifying medusa faces. The slender men’s initial appearance is played for horror. As they become more explained, they loose that spookiness. By the time they’re pelted with snowballs and cotton candy, the fear is totally gone. I can still see the younger audience members getting creeped out by this one, even if the adults will be left unaffected.

Ultimately, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a middle-of-the-road affair. It’s not a particularly bad film, being far too inoffensive for that. There are a handful of things about it that are really interesting. Like Green, the titular setting, and the quirky, spooky bits. These inspired elements are strangled by a formulaic and long-winded screenplay. It all adds to a film that isn’t likely to be remembered. “Home for Peculiar Children” did mediocre business domestically but turned into a modest hit overseas, prompting talks of a sequel. Tim Burton doesn’t sound very enthused about this possibility and neither am I. [Grade: C+]

Thursday, November 24, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

After completing her wizarding opus, J.K. Rowling said she was going to take a break from Harry Potter. Her sole excursion into the world of general fiction received mixed reviews and Rowling hastily returned to her broomsticks and Snitches. First there was an interactive website. Instead of giving fans a full-blown sequel series next, Harry’s adventure continued in a divisive stage play. And now the latest attempt to extend the brand, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” has arrived. Inspired by a brief textbook, the film is set in Harry’s world but sixty years before his birth. Rowling wrote the script herself and expects the film to be the first in a five part series. Perhaps in hopes of guaranteeing this franchise, Warner Brothers brought back director David Yates, who made them a lot of money with his last four “Potter” films.

The new film addresses some of my grievances with Rowling’s universe. Set in 1926, it follows magical zoologist Newt Scamander as he arrives in New York City. Following a mix-up, several of his fantastic beasts escape into the city. His quest to retrieve them dovetails with a sinister plot inside the wizard community to end the masquerade. Instead of setting itself entirely within the snug world of magic, “Fantastic Beasts” directly concerns how wizards and regular humans interact. A government agency covers up magical activity, regularly rewriting the memories of muggles like wand-wielding Men in Black. The main villain wants to stop this practice, believing a war between humans and wizards to be inevitable. It still doesn’t cover all my concerns. I find it difficult to believe that such a large subculture could function undetected, much less in a city as crowded as New York. But at least J.K. is trying.

Considering Rowling’s books have been the target of conservative shitheels, it’s surprising that Rowling has never commented on religious nut jobs. One of the tools utilized in the villain’s overly elaborate scheme are the Second Salemers. That is an organization eager to bring back the burning times, fearful of the witches living among us. The improbably named leader is Mary Lou Barebone, a psychopathic child abuser. Rowling’s criticism of religious extremism is shallow. The Second Salemers being manipulated by the very forces they rally against is barely commented on. Instead, Rowling draws a parallel between the way hardcore Christians abuse gays and other minorities. (The out and open Ezra Miller being cast as a repressed wizard, and frequent target of Barebone’s rage, seems to support this.) Still, it is interesting to see the role traditional religion plays in Potter’s world.

Truthfully, the Second Salemers are far more interesting the film’s actual villain. Some asshole named Grindelwald is the one eager to start the muggle/wizard world. He’s another one of Rowling’s evil wizards, often referenced but unrevealed until the very end, with a convoluted master plan packed with unnecessary steps. (He also apparently has some deeper connection with Potter lore, which I don’t care about.) The film’s hero is equally non-compelling. And it’s mostly Eddie Redmayne’s fault. Redmanye’s acting is as obnoxiously showy as ever. He saddles the character with a series of distracting quirks. He bumbles, trembles, and whispers important things, a tactic Redmanye often employs. By now, it’s clear that Redmayne is a one trick pony and it’s a shame he’s already tricked the Academy.

Yet the grating leading man and the boring adversary are less important then the motherfuckin’ monsters. Yes, some fantastic beasts are indeed on display. An early sequence is devoted to Scamander’s pet Niffler, an echidna looking thing with an obsession with gold, running amok in a bank. Later, we meet an invisible monkey creature that can predict the future and an angry porcupine covered in spaghetti. Scamander’s sidekick is a walking stick like living plant, which helps him out of a few jams. These critters are certainly more interesting then the Flying Doom, a swooping reptile whose memory-erasing venom becomes one of those plot devices Rowling loves so much.

The most eye-catching sequence occurs when Newt steps down into the Tardis-like suitcase he carries. Inside, Yates’ camera spins around the magical environment, a truly impressive computer generated set. We casually pass several intriguing creatures. Like magical lions, squid-faced horses, disappearing dodo birds, giant dung beetles nonchalantly stacking rocks, and a magnificently imposing thunderbird. (David Yates delights in utilizing the 3D effects, throwing shit into the viewer’s eyes, meaning his direction is more colorful then his overly gloomy “Potter” films.)

There are two particular beast-centric scenes that impressed me. The first involves an Erumpent – a massive, rhino-like creature that contains an explosive chemical in its horn – rampaging through central park. It burst through a zoo, leading the memorable sight of an emu running through the snowy park. In a goofy visual pun, the horned creature is in heat. Horny, if you will. What follows is a highly amusing slapstick sequence devoted to Newt and his friend attempting to capture the aroused beasts. Another notable sequence revolves around the Occamy, a Quetzalcoatl like feathered serpent that changes sizes depending on its location. Newt corners the beastie in Macy’s, the huge snake leaping around the room and eventually being caught in an unexpected way.

If Redmayne is a shrug worthy leading man, the film makes up for it with a lovable supporting cast. I especially like Dan Folger as Jacob, the muggle and would-be baker who accidentally gets caught up in Newt’s adventure. Folger provides the comically bemused straight man to the magical shenanigans. At first, he’s confused, then horrified, and then enchanted by the wonderful creatures around him. Katherine Waterston is amusingly neurotic as Tina, the wizard cop who stumbles upon Newt’s adventure. Like Jacob, she’s more down-to-earth then the spacey protagonist. My favorite is Alison Sudol as Queenie, Tina’s telepathic sister who is absolutely charming, a bubbly presence that elevates every scene she’s in. Ron Perlman is well cast as a goblin gangster, now CGI creations instead of little people in make-up.

When focused on retrieving Newt’s escaped critters, “Fantastic Beasts” is nicely entertaining. When it turns attention towards the evil wizard business, it drags. Colin Farrell sleepwalks through the functionary villain role. His master plan is to unleash the power behind Ezra Miller’s Credence, a shrieking role nearly as obnoxiously showy as Redmayne’s. This manifests as a swirling CGI cloud, which tears through the city. Considering all the neat monsters in the film, I don’t know why it would focus its finale on something this generic and uninteresting. Why not a bad ass dragon or kaiju-scale beast? Why a pissed-off meteorological event? When will Hollywood learn that CGI destruction clouds are boring antagonist? It’s also odd for a “Harry Potter” film, usually a more introspective franchise, to double-down on the urban destruction in the last act.

“Fantastic Beasts” certainly leaves enough dangling plot threads for a sequel, featuring recognizable actors in small parts. Jon Voight is cast as a Hearst-like newspaper mogul, a part which has little to do with the main plot. Zoe Kravitz has a blink-and-miss-it role as Newt’s long lost lover. An A-lister puts in a surprise appearance as Grindelwald. The villain is left alive, in order to return and vex the hero further. This is some of the least interesting stuff in the movie so, hopefully, the sequel will also double down on the fantastic beasts. Considering the box office has already exceeded the budget, Newt Scamander will certainly return. The first film is a pleasant time killer. Since Rowling is no longer bound to Y.A. formula, the budding franchise has the potential to be more entertaining then any of the proper “Potter” flicks. [7/10]

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)

For some, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” was the biggest pop culture event of their lives. It was a “Return of the Jedi” for a new generation, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Audiences turned out in droves. “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” became the most popular film of the year, made over a billion dollars, and currently rests as the eighth highest grossing film of all time. For me, it was the first film in the series I skipped in theaters. By the time the final “Harry Potter” film rolled around, I was entirely unconnected with this series. I just didn’t care anymore, eventually giving the sequel a dispassionate look on DVD. Am I a little more invested in the film at the tail end of a Harry Potter marathon?

Splitting the last book into two adaptations does make the eventual return to Hogwarts more meaningful. After a lengthy sequence inside Gringotts Bank, “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” is primarily set at the school. This allows a lot of familiar faces to return. Maggie Smith’s Miss McGonagall gets a big moment to herself, crowd-controlling rowdy students and summoning stone soldiers. Neville Longbottom becomes an unlikely hero, decapitating Voldemort’s giant snake. Luna Lovegood helps reveal an important plot point. Cho even shows up. This isn’t even mentioning the notable characters who get big death scenes, like Lupin. Even Griphook the goblin gets a meaty role, Warwick Davis really allowed to show his acting skills.

J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers adapting her work definitely wanted to bring things full circle. So how come they devote major sequences to more-or-less new characters? At one point, Harry needs help from a ghost to retrieve a Horcrux. You’d expect Nearly Headless Nick to reappear, right? Nope. Instead, the Grey Lady - a ghost referenced but never before seen – puts in an appearance. Later, the trio sneaks back into Hogwarts through the surrounding village. The character that greets them is Dumbledore’s brother. We’ve met the character before but he’s played by a different actor in a radically different way. These characters awkwardly dump some new mythological bits on the audience before moving on. Which definitely seems out of place in the final film in the series.

“The Deathly Hallows – Part 2” gets at the root of Voldemort’s motivation. Every horrible thing the villain has done has been to avoid death. This is contrasted with the other characters in the story. Such as Harry’s parents, who gave up their lives to protect a loved one. Or Dumbledore, who accepts his passing with serenity. The inevitably of death seems to be the film’s main theme, that everything has to end. Yet there’s one snag. Through the course of the film, Harry Potter dies and comes back to life. He does this with the help of another plot device, a magical resurrection stone. What Rowling is trying to say is that Potter’s willingness to die for others separates him from Voldemort. In practice, it makes the film’s theme seem like “Nobody can escape death… Except for Harry Potter.”

Another character that gets a graceful death scene is Professor Snape. Alan Rickman’s wizard is struck down by the villain for entirely selfish reasons. After dying, he grants Harry access to his memories. What we see is a tragic story of a man who has devoted ever lasting love to one woman. Of a person of incredible ethics, who did what his friends asked of him, who protected and cared for others. Since Snape has spent seven films as a hard-ass, it’s touching to see his sensitive side. To see that not only was Snape a good man but maybe the most complicated character in the entire series.

In order to be a properly epic conclusion, “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” is filled with huge action sequences. Hermione rides a huge white dragon out of Gringotts Bank, spraying fire at attackers. Inside the school, Harry and Ron barely escape a room going up in flames, chased by a fiery serpent. The battle of Hogwarts is clearly the central sequence of the film. Trolls, giant spiders, and huge stone soldiers all play their part. Half of the castle explodes. A minor character gets killed by a werewolf. The Weasley mother and Bellatrix LeStrange get a notable fight to themselves. It truly feels like a war, with the fate of the world at risk. It’s a big moment and suitably impressive.

Even as someone only casually invested in this series, finally seeing Harry and Voldemort face off is exciting. Harry pretends to be dead, choosing the right moment to reveal that he still lives, in order to strike a blow to the villain’s fragile ego. The hero continues to strike at the bad guy’s persona by referring to him as “Tom” throughout the last act. You can tell it’s personal because Voldemort isn’t using magic to attack Harry. He’s striking him with his bare hands. There’s an impressive moment when the two leap off the castle together, like Holmes and Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls. The last duel is treated with the proper weight, the hero and the villain meeting in a clearing and blasting at each other. It’s pretty neat, I guess.

In Rowling’s book, she included an incredibly controversial epilogue. It was mostly unnecessary, Rowling seemingly tossing it into the book in order to spite the shippers. The future set ending could’ve been clipped from the movie without loosing too much. We didn’t need to see Harry and Ginny’s son to know they turned out okay. (Though I’m really surprised Harry would permit his kid to go to school, considering how many time he almost died because of Hogwarts.) It’s an odd note to take the franchise out on. I would’ve prefer to see Harry and the gang moving on with their lives, instead of a big insurance to the audience that the adventure will continue.

Having waded my way through the entire cinematic Harry Potter experience, I come out on the other side… Well, still not totally getting it. Most of the films are entertaining, a few are a bore, they’re all well made, but I still don’t quite get the cultish devotion. Maybe I’m just not the target audience? Maybe I need to re-read the books? Seems to me that the films not made by Chris Columbus or David Yates are the most interesting ones. As for the final chamber, it’s mid-tier “Potter,” satisfying in a number of ways but still hassled by some odd scripting decisions. [7/10]

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (2010)

J.K. Rowling’s books are too goddamn long. The girth of her novels is something the makers of the “Harry Potter” movies have struggled with before. For a while, the idea of splitting the fourth novel into two was kicked around, before the screenwriters manned up and just started cutting shit. The final novel in the series was similarly lengthy. The decision was made to adapt it as two separate films. Ostensibly, this was done to give Rowling’s material proper room to breath. I suspect, however, this was also done so W.B. could squeeze one more movie, and maximum profits, out of their cash cow. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” set a precedence, followed both successfully and unsuccessfully by other Y.A. franchises.

You’d think J.K. would use the epic conclusion to her series as an excuse to abandon the Y.A. cliches that has characterized her work up until now. And she does, sort of. With war inevitable, Harry, Ron, and Hermione opt out of spending a seventh year at Hogwarts. Instead, they go on the run, seeking out the Horcruxes that hold the secret to defeating Voldemort. Despite shaking things up, “Deathly Hallows – Part 1” still maintains some of the annoying quirks of the genre. A newly introduced character is obviously the traitor. A plot resolving magical sword pops up out of nowhere, late in the film. Dumbledore’s plan for everyone extends even from beyond the grave, as he bequests the heroes with objects that help smooth out their journey. There’s a helpful exposition dump near the end of the film. It’s frustrating to see the film struggling to escape these boundaries but still be trapped by them.

Not-so-subtle hints have been dropped before that the way evil wizards like Voldemort persecute Mudbloods is meant to invoke antisemitism. “Deathly Hallows – Part 1” makes this connection explicit. Voldemort and his forces take over the Ministry of Magic, immediately using their newfound power to persecute minorities. They distribute propaganda to Hogwarts, spreading their racist agenda. They push hate, intolerance, and violence under a guise of protection and freedom. In other words, this seventh “Harry Potter” flick is about the rise of fascism. How it only takes a few genuinely evil people sneaking into a place of power to fuck all of us. Which is, you might have noticed, eerily relevant at this moment.

Tossing the three protagonists on a country-wide MacGuffin chase has its up and downsides. Focusing the story on the central trio cuts out a lot of the narrative chaff. Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend most of the movie hanging out in the forest, hiding and talking among themselves. So there’s plenty of opportunities for banter. We learn a little about Hermione’s history, seeing her parents and getting insight into her childhood. An especially sweet moment – possibly the highlight of the film – has Harry and Hermione performing an impromptu dance number

Yet the constantly moving plot forces the story in some annoying directions. Too often, the characters return to their camp in the woods, the plot becoming repetitive. In order to fill out that two hours and twenty minutes run time, there’s some goofy drama in the middle section. Ron wears one of the Horcruxes around his neck, the evil object influencing his personalities. Instead of, you know, plotting against the heroes for the dark lord, he just becomes a jealous asshole. When the world is at stake, petty melodrama is not what the audience wants to see.

In addition to the rather obvious antisemitism fable, “The Deathly Hallow – Part 1”  also presents a clear thematic idea. The film is about how war makes it difficult to trust anyone. Ron and Harry’s friendship is tested, by the evil powers of the Horcrux. Repeatedly, Harry questions how much he knew about Dumbledore, whether he can trusts his mentor’s plan for him. More then once, the trio discover they shouldn’t have trust someone, being betrayed at least once. Loyalties are tested throughout the journey, unexpected allies coming to the rescue and old friendships being reaffirmed.

After the more character oriented “Half-Blood Prince,” the seventh “Harry Potter” film doubles down on the action. There’s an eye-popping action sequence early on, an aerial battle in the sky between the two wizarding factions. The wedding party Harry is attending early on is invaded by attackers, forcing a hasty retreat. Harry and friends similarly have to make a quick escape from the Ministry of Magic, a horde of Dementors sneaking into their elevator. The ending features a major scuffle in the villain’s lair. Which doesn’t compare to the film’s emotional peak, the mournful death of Dobby. Which is far more affecting then Dumbledore’s death at the end of the last movie. Yet my favorite action beat in the film is smaller scale. It’s a close quarter magic battle in a coffee shop, bolts of supernatural energy blasting around tables and counters.

Throughout “The Deathly Hallows – Part 1,” I wondered if Yates wasn’t auditioning to make a big budget horror movie. Yates’ third “Harry Potter” movie features its share of spooky imagery. After being lured into a house, a friendly old lady turns into a giant snake, leading to a suitably intense fight. The proper climax of the film involves a black smoke monster emerging from the Horcrux, a convincingly moody special effect. (It’s also another moment when the series acknowledges that two of its main characters are horny teenage boys.) The story of the Deathly Hallows – three more magical plot devices, as if this series needed anymore – is presented as a macabre cartoon. Instead of just turning up the doom and gloom, Yates actually steps up and creates a foreboding atmosphere.

“The Deathly Hallows” is a long book, so splitting it in two probably wasn’t a bad idea. It certainly makes more sense then other, purely mercenary efforts to wring two movies out of other Y.A. series conclusions. Yet I kind of wonder why David Yates and his team picked that particular moment to cut this one off. Seems to me Ron conquering the smoke monster was a better point to end part one on. As in all the “Potter” films, there’s some neat stuff inside this one. There’s also some goofy Y.A. bullshit and some melodrama that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s still not my favorite of the series and ranks pretty low for me. [6/10]

Monday, November 21, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

By the time “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” went before cameras, the producers had shit figured out. While David Yates was editing the previous film, he was talked into making the next one. All the key players were pinned down, even if Emma Watson was beginning to express some misgivings about her most famous role. By 2008, it would’ve taken an act of god to prevent the release of the next Harry Potter movie. Naturally, it became another massive hit, breaking several records and becoming the second highest grossing film of the year. As the wizarding saga approached its end, the public’s Potter fever showed no sign of slowing.

If each of J.K. Rowling’s stories can be said to have a theme, it seems “The Half-Blood Prince” is about secrets and the cost of keeping them. Early on, Severus Snape entrusts Draco Malfoy to carry out a secret order. Malfoy carries out this mission along the film’s sidelines. Similarly, Dumbledore later gives Harry the responsibility of his own covert mission. Both mentors, we discover later, have secrets of their own. Even the quieter, more character oriented moment revolve around people hiding things from each others. As the Hogwarts kids creep closer to adulthood, they learn that the grown-up world is full of hidden identities and secluded truths.

This doesn’t terribly concern Harry Potter. Mostly, the sixteen year old boy is horny. The film begins with him oogling a shapely waitress and successfully getting her attention. Dumbledore then cock-blocks the poor wizard, zapping him away to another location. Romance is a pressing concern throughout the film, as Harry grows closer to Ron’s little sister, Ginny. That particular love story is a bit of a surprise. Previously, it was suggested that Ginny’s feelings for Harry were little more then a precocious crush. Harry returning her feelings is surprising. Then again, considering how desperate Harry is for some action, maybe any snogging would be welcomed. Since the franchise is still ostensibly kid focused, it’s refreshing to see a somewhat honest approach to teenage hormones.

Truthfully, I find the romantic shenanigans to be more interesting then the constant foreshadowing of the ever-approaching wizard war. Both Harry and Ron receive more female attention then either is used too. After winning a big Quiddatch game, a girl starts to bathe Ron in affection. Which he mostly accepts to make Hermione jealous. She counters by going to a school dance with some jock. Though the two friends are clearly romantically attracted to each other, they’re still testing the boundaries of this relationship. This brings some growing pains of its own, which Hermione expresses by throwing birds at Ron. Eventually, they admit they like each other, in a really cute way. Harry has some romantic entanglements too, when a love potion intended for him winds up with Ron instead. Moments of light, romantic comedy add some much needed levity to what would otherwise be a gloomy film.

“The Half-Blood Prince” doesn’t have the big action set pieces of the previous films. There’s no hippogriff riding, dragon fights, or elaborate wizard duels. In truth, most of the big effects sequences take place in the first act. The film opens with some Death Eaters collapsing a bridge in London, one of the few times we see the wizarding world and the muggle world interact. (Disappointingly, the implications of this terrorist attack are never expanded on.) Later, the same gang of evil wizards burn down the Weasley’s shanty, leading to a brief chase through a corn field. The film’s climax is more emotional then anything else, though David Yates did throw some explosions in just for the hell of it.

With David Yates becoming the captain of Harry Potter Land, leading the entire second half of the franchise, stale serialization has seeped into the series. These last few movies are the ones that blend together the most in my mind. “The Half Blood Prince,” too often, feels like an extended act in foreshadowing, the belabored prologue to the final films. Lots of plot points are introduced with a big shrug. The mystery of the Half-Blood Prince’s identity gets the title position but ultimately plays a minuscule role.  When the truth is revealed, it’s done as an afterthought. There’s an extended sequence devoted to drinking burning black water, which seems unnecessary. “The Half-Blood Prince’s” main purpose is to set up the Horcruxes, the plot devices that will allow Harry to defeat Voldemort. When a significant ring drops on-screen, the film never bothers to explain what exactly it is to the Potter illiterate folks in the audience.

“The Half-Blood Prince” is so devoted to setting up the last film that its entire run time is just build-up to one pivotal moment, which will make everything that follows possible: The death of Dumbledore. The moment isn’t surprising, as the act had been whispered about all throughout the film. When the killing blow comes, it’s not a shock. Instead, the death happens resignedly. Dumbledore himself is fine with it, his demise obviously planned as part of his grand scheme. Yates does everything possible to add weight and importance to the moment. There’s slow motion, sweeping music, and many anguished screams. And I’m sure Dumbledore’s death was a huge tear-jerker for Potter devotees but it’s hard for me to get upset when over two hours of movie predicted it.

Like every previous “Potter” film, “Half-Blood Prince” has a loaded supporting cast. The showiest new addition is James Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, easily the dumbest name J.K. Rowling has ever conceived. But Broadbent is fine in the part, bringing some eccentric energy. Helena Bonham Carter is given a larger role, allowed to shriek and ham it up more. Michael Gambon is overly grim, further hinting at his character’s inevitable demise. Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright get meatier roles, even if the former mostly just gives magical objects serious looks. As always, the central trio do good work. Radcliffe and Grint’s small comedic touches are much welcomed.

The “Harry Potter” franchise has become so invested in its own mythology that it plays mostly to the hardcore fans, leaving casual dabblers in the dark. This represents a lack of balance in the final film. For example, Voldemort is constantly discussed but barely appears. Yates’ direction remains gloomy and heavy. Maybe this is why I like the lighter stuff in the first half – the romantic shenanigans, the banter between the main cast – way more then the leaden second half?  “Half-Blood Prince” does provide its pleasures even if my memories of it are quickly leaving my mind. [7/10]

Sunday, November 20, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter had attracted a number of interesting directors but had trouble making them stay. Chris Columbus seemed like the guy at first but eventually couldn’t handle the seven film commitment. Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell would only stick around for one entry each. Enter David Yates. A director whose background was mostly in television, Yates would stick through the next three Potter films and beyond. (This seem to foreshadow the role television directors would play in the franchise-heavy future of blockbuster film making.) “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was Yates’ first stab at the genre and obviously somebody thought he did a good job.

In their fifth year, Harry and friends are now undeniably teenagers. Fittingly, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a tale about a very specific form of teenage rebellion. Tyrannical forces begin to take over Hogswart, rooted in the Ministry of Magic. To the viewer, it’s obvious that this new faction is affiliated with Voldemort’s dark wizards. The screenplay certainly makes this apparent. Yet most of the authority figures are clueless. So Harry and his friends organize secret classes, to teach combative magic. It’s an interesting decision to correlate traditional teenage acts against authority with a literal, underground rebellion. It also leads to a bunch of fun sequences of Harry training other kids to do offensive spells.

Rowling invented a perfectly hateful character to be the face of this new oppressive regime. Dolores Umbridge is a little old lady. She dresses primarily in pink. She decorates her office with pictures of mewing kitty cats. She almost never raises her voice. Umbridge is also a complete fascist. She slowly chips away at the students’ rights, replacing them with repressive new rules. Anyone who challenges her authority is eliminated, in the most humiliating fashion possible. Umbridge isn’t above violence either, essentially inflicting torture upon those that fight her. Imelda Staunton embodies the utterly despicable character, illustrating how fascism can slowly sneak in and take over a reasonable system. A message that is more relevant now then when the film was new.

“Order of the Phoenix” also grapples more directly with the series’ thematic concerns. Harry’s connection with Voldemort forms a serious portion of the story. The villain crawls into the hero’s head, drawing attention to how similar they are. This points towards Harry’s connection with death. How his story begins with death, how those around him keep dying, and how those deaths weigh on his mind. This is made explicit when two creatures, visible only to those who have firsthand experiences with the dying, appear. Memories are another important theme in “Order of the Phoenix.” Harry receives training from Snape to prevent an enemy from entering his mind. During these sessions, we get a glimpse at the thoughts that dominate Harry’s minds. And the thoughts that dominate Snape’s as well, seeing the truth that Potter’s dad was a bully… And Snape was his frequent victim. Because we often write our own history.

The fifth “Harry Potter” film is pretty action packed, which leaves only a little room for smaller, emotional moments. Such as Harry getting closer to Cho, the pretty Chinese girl he’s been making eyes at for two movies. This mutual attraction climaxes with the two under the mistletoe, probably one of the sweetest romantic moments in the whole series. Neville continues to gain confidence during the training session, a rewarding moment. Harry is further humanized as his reputation at Hogwarts is tarnished by some nasty rumors. Seeing the young hero a little pissed off is interesting. (This works better then the somewhat awkward attempts to insert humor midway through the film.)

As a visual stylist, David Yates isn’t as strong as Newell or Cuaron. He mostly apes their styles, covering Hogwarts in gloomy fog. When he displays an eye of his own, the results aren’t always satisfying. At one point, Yates even degrades into some incoherent shaky-cam. Yates’ best feature as a director is how he refocuses on production design. A key location is a secret room inside Hogwarts, accessible only to those who really need it. The climax of the film is set within the Ministry of Magic, among endless shelves of objects, featuring an abstract set. The cubic floors are a nice touch.

“Order of the Phoenix” doesn’t have the kind of neat creatures that the other “Harry Potter” films do. The closest we get are a species of skeletal horse-like monsters, visible only to certain people, and a juvenile giant. While the horse-things are kind of neat, the baby giant is one of the film’s weakest elements. Instead of focusing on cool monsters, “Order of the Phoenix” doubles down on the bitchin’ wizard duels. The highlight of the film is the confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore. For the first time, we really see what two powerful wizards fighting to the death looks like. Huge sparking bolts shot from wands. Voldemort conjures up a giant serpent made of flames. Dumbledore counters with an orb of spinning water. Shattered glass is weaponized and then rendered into sand. It’s neat.

Since being introduced, Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black has mostly been utilized as either a nutcase or a stately father figure. “Order of the Phoenix” gives him a little more to do, getting a juicy scene devoted to his family history and even a fight scene just to himself. Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eyed Moody also has a little more screen time, Gleeson’s committing fully to the role. Jason Isaacs’ Lucius Malfoy previously appeared as just a selfish dick weed, a bully. He graduates to full-blown villain here, a servant of the evil wizard. Helena Bonham Carter makes the showiest appearance as Bellatrix LeStrange, a wild-haired and psychotic witch. Carter mostly vamps for the camera. On the heroic side, there’s the beguiling Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, an eccentric student that hides hidden depths.

Where does “Order of the Phoenix” fall in the hierarchy of Potter films? From this point on, the series would become more serialized, making the individual films less likely to stand out. The fifth movie’s plot is almost entirely devoted to building on what came before, causing events to blur together. It doesn’t have the memorable set pieces of the earlier pictures. It’s still pretty good but this is probably the “Potter” flick that I forget the most about in-between viewings. The world doesn’t agree, as “Order of the Phoenix” would become one of the highest grossing films in the franchise. [7/10]

Saturday, November 19, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

The release of J.K. Rowling’s literary “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was easily when my fandom for her wizarding world burnt the brightest. I had read through the first three books in quick succession. After finishing with those, the fourth book had just been released. I immediately ate the book up. Weirdly, by the time the film adaptation was released, my interest in the series had all but entirely dried up. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Yet, I’ll admit, I still have a soft spot for this particular entry, both the novel and the movie.

Maybe my fondness for this one has a lot to do with my general enjoyment of stories based around challenges and tournaments. The Tri-Wizard Tournament provides the film with a neat structure, each of the three challenges being nestled into each act. It’s an easy way to raise the stakes, as each event is obviously more difficult then the one before it. The structure also provides some downtime between each event, allowing the pacing to flow more evenly. Making Harry an unwilling entry into the tournament provides us with a nicely conflicted hero, someone who is struggling to succeed even before the first challenge.

“The Goblet of Fire” is the Harry Potter film most about growing up. As the tagline points out, everything is going to change. Harry and Ron test the boundaries of their friendship, the two boys not speaking for a portion of the film. Both realize that Hermione has grown up into a lovely young woman. (Though Emma Watson was never exactly plain, making this transformation less believable.) By the film’s end, the characters’ innocence is gone, Harry witnessing a friend die before his eyes. They are entering a scarier world, one on the verge of war, with dark forces vying for control.

The fourth also sees a new director entering the “Harry Potter” world. If Alfonso Cuaron seemed like an unlikely choice, Mike Newell is equally unexpected. The man behind “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco” hardly seems like the right choice for a special effects filled young adult adaptation. Yet Newell adapts well to the material. His visual palette is even gloomier then Cuaron’s, as he bathes the film in English fog. By painting the movie in darker colors, it prepares the viewer for the dark content. Such as the Death Eaters' attack on the Quddicth Cup or Harry’s descent in Dumbledore’s memories.

Another reason to like “Goblet of Fire” is the goddamn dragons. The fearsome creatures have been referenced throughout the prior films, with little Norbert being the only previous on-screen example. Here, we see full grown dragons, raging and breathing fire. Harry’s encounter with the Hungarian Horntail is easily the most exciting sequence in the film. The dragon, beautifully brought to life, sprays fire. The fight leaves the arena, the dragon pursuing Harry around the school. The obscuring fog makes the creature harder to see, raising the intensity in the fight. Unlike other, more easily won encounters, you feel like Harry really earns that victory.

The second challenge is almost as satisfying. Instead of the murky skies above Hogwarts, it’s set in the murky waters of the Black Lake. Surprisingly, there’s even some minor body horror tossed in, when Harry grows gills. The mermaids here do not resemble the beautiful fishtailed maidens of legend. Instead, they’re creepy, grey skinned fish monsters. Which is a nice touch. When smaller critters begin to drag Harry down, you even start to worry for the kid’s life a bit. “Goblet of Fire” emphasizes Harry’s vulnerability throughout, by showing the hero as something other then universally popular and beloved.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is, easily, the darkest film in the series up to this point. After a somewhat incoherent sequence set in a creepy hedge maze, the film barrels towards its final act. For the first time in the series history, Voldemort appears on-screen. After all that build-up, it would be easy to fumble the dark lord’s first appearance. However, Newell’s film handles the situation with the proper foreboding. Voldemort is brought to life by a clever combination of special effects and Ralph Fiennes, who slithers with sinister intent. Just to let you know he’s serious, he also offhandedly murders a supporting character. It’s certainly an effective note to end things on.

As with every “Potter” film, a new collection of talented British character actors join the cast. The best of which is Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eyed Moody, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Gleeson plays the character as just slightly unhinged, adding enough edge to make him interesting. Miranda Richardson has a nifty supporting part as Rita Skeeter, the slimy tabloid reporter that features in a few scenes. Stanislav Ianevski as Krum and Clemence Poesy as Fleur Delacour give mostly physical performances but both are well suited to the parts. Returning cast members, like Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore and Alan Rickman’s Snape, continue to get isolated moments to themselves.

In truth, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” may be my favorite of the film series. It’s the only film in the series were the weight of the run time – once again over two hours – isn’t felt by the viewer. The conflicts are more alive then before and the young cast continues to grow in interesting new directions. It also has a stronger climax then any of the other movies, featuring good and evil truly facing each other down for the first time. Cuaron’s “Prisoner of Azkaban” is a little more ambitious but “Goblet of Fire” is ultimately a little more exciting. [7/10]

Friday, November 18, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

For “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” director Chris Columbus would step away from the franchise, reportedly because he wanted to spend more time with his kids. Stepping into the director’s chair was Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican director best known for ribald coming-of-age story “Y Tu Mama Tambian.” This led to many crude jokes about Harry Potter getting into steamier adventure, since people evidently forgot that Cuaron also made “The Little Princess.” The resulting film would receive the best reviews that series had gotten up to that point, while also grossing slightly less at the box office.

J.K. Rowling had always intended her famous wizard to grow up alongside the audience. Since Harry and friends are officially thirteen year olds now, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is easily the darkest of the films up to this point. The story revolves around a dangerous criminal escaping prison and pursuing Harry, presumably with the intention of killing him. Soul sucking spectres, called Dementors and resembling the Grim Reaper, feature prominently in the story. A werewolf and an ominous black dog show up too. The tone is growing chillier too, to match the darker story and the stormier hormones of the main characters.

Chris Columbus seemed to consider the “Potter” films simple children’s stories, handcuffing his own imagination in favor of a uniform product. So Alfonso Cuaron becomes the first director to really have fun with the Potter-verse’s magical qualities. He adds whimsical elements to the story, many of them from his own imagination. Such as a double decker bus, which is invisible to mortal eyes, squeezing between traffic. One of Hogwarts’ buildings is decorated with a giant pendulum that spends back and forth. The ghosts and living paintings receive larger roles, often sprinkled into the quiet scenes. A nice touch has the Whomping Willow illustrating the changing of the seasons, the tree either covered in snow or swatting away young birds. Even the elements Cuaron inherits from the book, such as the Marauder’s Map, he brings a unique charm to.

The first film seemed satisfied to be a simple story of discovery while part two was basically a murder-free murder mystery. The third entry delves a little deeper, thematically. “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is interested in how the past connects with the present. Harry’s death filled history comes back to him literally, as Sirius pursues him. Later, Harry learns more about the legacy he has inherited from his parents, one that comes with quite a bit of baggage. Moreover, an atmosphere of secrets characterizes the film. Truths are being kept from Harry, about his parent’s death. Soon, he discovers, yet more secrets lurk among people he’s been told to hate and people he’s been told to trust.

The story’s central trio are growing more hormonal and temperamental. Harry is getting angrier, outright confronting those that attack him. He’s not the only one. After Draco Malfoy makes some racist remarks towards Hermione, she punches him in the face. Considering the bully’s role in the story are growing increasingly unnecessary, it’s a satisfying moment. Meanwhile, love is in the air more. Ron and Hermione are seen getting closer in a few scenes, their future romance being hinted at more then ever. The character seem more in line with the actors playing them.

“Prisoner of Azkaban” also features some sweet fucking monsters, an opportunity which Cuaron seems to revel in. The Dementors, written by Rowling as a metaphor for her depression, appear as wispy spectres that suck the souls right out of people. Their appearances are treated as appropriately sinister, the air freezing around them. A boggart – a British boogieman – also makes a memorable appearance, a sequence that concludes with a spider on roller skates. Black Shuck, the ominous black dog of Anglian lore which Rowling calls the Grim for some reason, puts in several memorable appearances, each one creepier then the last. This seems to foreshadow a honest-to-God werewolf showing up. Instead of the wolf-headed man we usually see in fiction, the werewolf is portrayed as an emaciated large dog, frightening but pathetic.

The supporting cast continues to be excellent, many of the same talented performers returning. Alan Rickman’s Snape is given more to do, allowed to fill out his role as a grouchy but well-meaning mentor. Richard Harris passed away between the second and third film. Michael Gambon filled his robes. Gambon’s Dumbledore is distinctly different from Harris’. He’s less like a charitable old grandfather and more like a prepared leader without loosing the sense of warmth or humor. Several notable names join the cast.  Gary Oldman is properly unhinged as Sirius Black, yet does show a second side before the end. Timothy Spall is fittingly rat-like as Peter Pettigrew, a sniveling minion. David Thewlis projects a helpful energy as Lupin while hinting at the character’s darker aspects. Emma Thompson is the showiest addition as Professor Trelawney, a kooky character that adds some humor and color to several scenes.

“Prisoner of Azkaban” features a prolonged denouncement, involving time travel. As has often been pointed out, this more-or-less breaks the entire plot. Not just of this film but all of them. Which is true. But the time travel reversal of the last act provides plenty of fun for the audience. It gives us more of Buckbeak, the delightful hippogriff that features in several key scenes. Previously seen events are revisit but somehow become more exciting then they were last time. It also pays off nicely on several small moments introduced earlier in the film.

It seems, at least for now, the quality of the “Potter” films are increasing with each new entry. “Chamber of Secrets” was better then “The Sorcerer’s Stone.” And “Prisoner of Azkaban” is better then “Chamber of Secrets.” There’s several moments of pure joy, such as Potter’s flight on the hippogriff, and thrilling action sequence, such as a fight with the Whomping Willow. Cuaron’s visual design is better, the story is sneakier, and the film utilizes its fantasy setting better. [7/10]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Following the obvious box office success of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the producers of the series felt no need to shake things up on the production end of things. Chris Columbus would return for the second entry in the series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” It would be the “Home Alone” filmmaker’s final trip to Hogswart. Though I can’t say why, since this one would be an even more colossal success. As a kid, this was both my favorite book and film in the series, which may explain why I still like this one a fair amount.

“Chamber of Secrets” does not stray too much from the formula established last time. Once again, the film begins with Harry quarreling with the Dursleys, eventually upsetting their muggle existence with some magical shenanigans. For a second time, someone comes to rescue Harry, causing a big scene. Instead of Hagrid and his umbrella, it’s Ron in a flying car. Once at the school, a mystery emerges, tied to the academy’s history. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to utilize their various skills in order to figure out what’s going on. Both films conclude in a secret chamber under Hogwarts. There, some incarnation of Voldemort is revealed to be behind it all.

Though following the story beats laid out last time, the sequel generally does a better job of pulling the viewer in. Unlike “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which staked its story line on an obvious red herring, this one is a little more involving. Actual lives are on the line, as numerous unsuspecting people end up petrified, including a character we actually care about like Hermione. The clues are laid out in a more satisfying manner, involving Hagrid’s past and Hogwarts’ legends. Most importantly, Harry grows more in this entry. He questions his own heritage and abilities, while being more active during the climax.

The second year at Hogwarts also develops the wizarding world a little more. We see more of Ron’s family, getting to know his parents and sister closer. There’s a kind of cute sequence involving a magical form of teleportation, which Harry hasn’t gotten the hang of yet. Dobby the house elf brings with him his own rules, showing there’s such a thing as a persecuted underclass in the wizardery world. This isn’t the only sign of the magic’s dark side we get. There’s such a thing as magical racism, as “mudbloods” – those with a non-magical parent – are discriminated against by some. Further solidifying themselves as the party of assholes, we learn that the Slytherin house was founded by a racial supremacist. This is why Drago, his dad, and Professor Snape appear to be such douche bags. Prejudice is built into their ideology.

If I’m being totally honest, the real reason I like “Chamber of Secrets” is because it has way cooler monsters in it. The CGI used to bring Dobby to life is better then anything in the first film and his artificial quality brings an intentional creepiness to the house elf. A nifty looking mandrake plant appears later, a root-like fetus with a fatal scream. (The script leaves out the mandrake’s distinctly non-PG origin though.) We meet Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, who is mostly brought to life via an impressive puppet. My favorite of the creatures is Aragog, Hagrid’s pet giant spider. The sequence devoted to the huge arachnids is one of my favorite in the series, with the massive tarantula speaking with a foreboding voice and hanging out in a dark, cobweb strewn corner of the forest.

The special effects, in general, have improved a lot. Maybe they had more money or maybe Columbus realized wonky CGI wasn’t the best choice. There are plenty of digital effects in “Chamber of Secrets” but they are balanced more with practical puppetry and animatronics. The best example being the basilisk itself. A big ass snake, the creature is kept off-screen through most of the story. Since Harry hears its whispered commands to kill, the serpent’s appearance is built up to. When the enormous beast slithers on-screen, it makes an impression. A huge puppet of the snake’s head was built, which actually interacts with the actors. The last act – a tense crawl through underground tunnels followed by a battle to the death – is a big improvement to last time’s underwhelming test of ability.

Now, plenty of the annoying quirks of young adult literature are present. The characters don’t spend nearly the entire film chasing it but a MacGuffin is still present, in the form of a magical journal. This journal does lead to a nicely done sequence, when a present day character slips into a memory, an inventive way to spruce up a standard flashback. Some plot devices crop up near the end, with just barely enough foreshadowing not to qualify as deus ex machinas. Such as the healing property of phoenix tears nonchalantly being mentioned. Except for the sudden appearance of a significant sword, which really does come out of nowhere.

The cast has continued to grow into their roles. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson continue to be natural choices for their parts, eventually adding some vulnerability to the characters. Even Rupert Grint has lost some of his rough edges. Richard Harris gets to do a little more, even if he’s mostly still confined to the role of mentor. This was Harris’ final performance before his death and, if he was sick, he shows no sign of it. Alan Rickman’s part is reduced but he still brings some sinister glee to his scenes. Among the new additions, Kenneth Branagh is delightfully hammy as Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who is a self-obsessed ass and a total fraud. Jason Isaacs is also perfectly cast as Malfoy’s father, an even bigger elitist scumbag then his son.

By dialing down the “gee shucks” quality present in part one, “Harry Power and the Chamber of Secrets” emerges as the superior flick. The pacing is a little tighter, even with a run time that veers uncomfortably close to three hours. The story holds more surprises and more interesting reveals. Most pressingly to me, the addition of more bad ass monsters draws me in and keeps my attention. I mean, there’s even a killer tree in one scene! The wizard filled franchise recovers a bit in its second entry, giving me hope that this retrospective won’t be a total beginning-to-end slog. [7/10]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

I went through a “Harry Potter” phase. I was in the sixth grade and the “Goblet of Fire” hadn’t come out yet. After hearing so much praise for the series, my mom ordered the first three books from the Science Fiction Book Club. I was immediately sucked in, quickly working my way through the novels. The fourth book came out soon afterwards, which I subsequently devoured. The film adaptations fed my frenzy for the wizard world. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” – “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to you limeys – was an honest-to-God pop culture event when it hit theaters in 2001. In the lengthy wait between the fourth and fifth book, I lost interest in the Potter-verse. Though I read the other books and have watched the other movies, I’ve always felt like I outgrew this particular franchise.

Many other people, it must be said, have not. “Harry Potter” remains beloved by audiences young and old. I’ve met these people and I can’t share their passion. I never wanted to go to Hogwarts. I never wanted to be a Gryffindor or any of that shit. I went through a stage were I wanted to be a wizard but one of the badass ones that fights demons and shoot fireballs, not the type that takes potion classes. Not that anyone should want to go to Hogwarts, considering how dangerous this prestige academy apparently is. My biggest grievance with the world J.K. Rowling created, adored by millions, is how separated the wizarding world is from the non-magical one. Never once has human civilization notice this enormous magical society co-habituating along side it? Not even when a war breaks out in the later entries? For that matter, how possible is it that regular humanity and the magically inclined world have never come into conflict? It all strikes me as deeply unlikely.

Which isn’t to say they’re aren’t aspects I appreciate about the “Potter” films. The production design is aces. Hogwarts is an amazing looking world. The school is an elaborate castle. A sequence devoted to the shifting staircases beyond the dormitories is an imaginative shot. Ghosts, including the nicely morbid touch of John Cleese’s Nearly Headless Nick, roam the hallways. Photos and paintings spring to life. The dining hall has an animated ceiling, showing a night sky. During the holidays, Jack o’Lanterns or Christmas candles float above the tables. John Williams, always reliable to create an immediately recognizable theme, provides a fantastic score.

The set design, costumes, and production design are all top of the line. What of the CGI? Back in 2001, the digital effects were considered cutting edge. Fifteen years later, they look incredibly dated. The film relies far too much on the primitive computer generated images, bringing all its major creatures to life in this manner. This leads to a cartoonish looking blue troll or an unconvincing three-headed dog. Even worst, when the actors have to interact with these entities, they are transformed into equally fake looking CGI models. Attempts to make these rough digital creatures into characters, like a talking centaur, aren’t effective due to the obvious fault of the shaky effects. By trying to prove how high tech it could be, the film ended up exceeding its reach.

Most of the sequences designed to be exciting come off as a bit dry. The three kids attempting to escape the three-headed dog is also undermined by some soft CGI. A later challenge, involving Harry and Hermione wiggling out of strangling vines, generates zero suspense. The Quidditch game, though clearly the centerpiece of the film, has a similar problem. Everything about it is just a bit too light, a little too harmless to produce proper thrills. Other scenes are a little better. The Wizard’s Chess sequence, in which the three wizards have a play on a giant chess board, works a little better. First off, the large stone chess pieces look pretty cool. The scene also relies on practical effects, giving quite a bit more weight to the danger ahead.

In the months leading up to the film’s release, there was a worldwide search to cast the three lead roles. While “Sorcerer’s Stone” would make a few mistakes, its casting wasn’t one of them. Daniel Radcliffe not only looks exactly like Rowling described Harry, he also fits perfectly into the role. He’s curious, slightly reckless, but ultimately heroic. Rupert Grint, though a little rough around the edges, is well suited to Ron, who is still mostly goofy comic relief by this point. Emma Watson, who would arguably have the best career of the three, is brainy without being smug, showing a maturity in the way she instills flaws into the part.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, loaded with some of the best British character actors around. Richard Harris embodies Dumbledore, as an unerringly wise mentor with a hidden sense of humor. Robbie Coltrane is, likewise, perfectly cast as Hagrid, who is as imposing as the character need be without loosing the warmth and goofiness that characterizes him. Maggie Smith as McGonagall is more strict but also shows a quiet sense of humor, albeit one that is more puckish. Of the supporting cast, Alan Rickman is perhaps best cast as Snape. Rickman is extremely good at making sinister acts look extremely fun, which makes him an ideal pick for the part. There’s even a few major names in minor roles, such as John Hurt as the wand shop owner or John Cleese as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick.

There are other story elements in the film that I take umbrage with, quite a few inherited from the source material. Professor Snape is obviously a red herring. The character spend nearly the entire film assuming him to be evil, when it’s quite obvious that he isn’t. Even as a kid, reading the book for the first time, this bothered me. When the true villain is revealed at the end, he immediately explains all the events that happened up to that point, dumping a huge load of exposition on the reader. Harry, despite being the story’s hero, gets a lot of help along the way. He would’ve been dead many times over if not for Hermione’s smarts, Dumbledore’s guidance, and Ron’s previously unstated mastery of chess. It’s only at the very end, when confronted with the antagonist, that Harry actually takes action, the eleven year old boy burning the bad guy to death. Even that is thanks to a bullshit revelation about the power of love.

In more ways then one, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a lightweight children’s film. Its mood remains light, even when things get more serious. There’s a lot of holes in the logic and story that young viewers will accept at face value. I guess these things stick in my teeth. But it’s not a bad film. The production design is great, the cast is quite good, and it’s overall an inoffensive way to spend two and a half hours. But the “Harry Potter” franchise would go to more interesting places before it was over. [6/10]