Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

“It all ends.” By this point, the eighth and final film in this massively popular franchise, this was all the posters needed to say — indeed, I scrolled through many pages of images trying to find any with the movie’s title on it. And I suppose you might say that I was disappointed by this finale, but in truth it has everything I imagine the audience wants in this kind of thing. I can hardly, in fact, suggest that anything else would have been suitable. It’s just that, having invested so much time over so many films in these characters and the actors who play them, the kind of frenetically-paced action setpieces and big emotion-laden sentimentality that HP7b delivers feels just a mite generic. Still, aside from a humorous possibility held out by the very final scene of a ‘Harry Potter: The Next Generation’, it does at least deliver on the poster’s promise. It all ends.*

Trying to rehash the plot at this point feels like an exercise in futility, though in fact this film was my first encounter with the universe of Harry Potter (aside of course from its fandom’s appearances in various media reports over the previous decade or more). I don’t imagine that at this point anyone is going to start with this instalment, and from personal experience I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Distinguished character actors from the previous seven films show up here, often in shots so brief as to be easily missed in the general tumult, though seeing them creates a little frisson of recognition and warmth of feeling (my favourite was Maggie Smith magically rousing into action the stone soldiers in Hogwarts’ façade). Not to mention that what feels like the entire series’ emotional climax — the point at which the links between the hero and his antagonist Voldemort become clear — is also completely incomprehensible without at least an understanding of the “horcrux” concept, and certainly not communicable in whispers from one’s partner in the darkness of a cinema.

These are the film’s highlights. Elsewhere, though, as I’ve mentioned, it becomes a little generically deadening, particularly a vast massed battle scene set at Hogwarts involving plentiful destruction that takes up most of the film’s second hour. There’s all kinds of running about, a bit of slow-motion, and loads of special effects. There’s rousing, grandstanding moments of brazen emotionalism (reader, I shed a few tears) and moments where the protagonists stop to share their feelings. I may come across a bit cynical here, but I can concede that these have I suppose been earned, and did not at least overwhelm the narrative.

I daresay, then, that this is the point where I should be attempting a grand summation of the Harry Potter film experience. If like a lot of modern blockbuster series it somewhat resembles a rollercoaster ride, then at least it is backed up by some strong writing and tightly-structured character development. On the one hand, Rowling has clearly embraced the hoary old archetypes of the genre — wands, pointy hats, broomsticks, and all that spell casting ‘abracadabra’ (sorry, “avara kedavra”) gubbins — but what I like about the films, not being familiar at all with the books, is that it harnesses this essentially childish nonsense world to a distinctly darker-hued palette of gloom and chiaroscuro (okay not so much in the first two films, but from Azkaban onwards at least). There are moments of levity (largely in the sixth film) but few are the times when the lowering clouds part — and when they do (as in the opening of that same film), it is as likely to be to better set off the inky black messengers of Voldemort’s destructive wrath sweeping across the sky.

As for the characters (Harry, Hermione and Ron of course, along with their more prominent classmates like Neville, Draco, Luna and Ginny), they convincingly progress from chirpy tweens to emo-wracked teenagers to ultimately well-adjusted young adults, in a quite literal coming of age for both them and the actors portraying them. After all, they pull through morbid fixations (tests to their mortality in the fourth film), the depths of depression and the awkwardness of socialising (in the fifth), and a paralysis of uncertainty about what to do when finally free from the guidance of adults (in the first part of this finale).

I find, in the end, that I am rather fond of this world through spending time in it, but then opening oneself up to any ongoing series can often have this effect. The narrative doesn’t make any formal demands on the viewer (it’s all straightforwardly and linearly plotted), and the universe has a cosy reassuring quality to it — sure there are unexpected deaths, but they are all motivated and explained within the narrative. Ultimately, after all, this is a straightforward battle between Good and Evil and as viewers/readers we are conditioned to know how those generically turn out. So (and here we come back to my rating of this final film), finding out quite how things conclude is not in the end the most enjoyable aspect of the series. Instead, it’s in the journey, and thankfully for the most part that has been a pleasurable one to take.

Footnote: * If in fact it turns out that in the fullness of time, for whatever reason, the franchise is brought back to life, whether for sequels, prequels or reboots, I reserve the right to rewrite this review in the most excoriating terms.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 26 July 2011 (and on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 7 January 2014).

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

It seems nowadays like almost a cliché of the tentpole blockbuster adapted from a popular source text, that the final book will be split into more than one film — as if it’s just so sensible a commercial manoeuvre that why would we question it? It happened with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/12), and is set to happen with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014/15) — and then there’s The Hobbit (2012/13/14), which has been split into three — so it’s worth recalling that before Deathly Hallows there hadn’t been much of a precedent for this kind of thing (Kill Bill, perhaps, though that wasn’t from a novel). Wanting to be faithful to the text and make the inbuilt fans of the franchise happy, and wanting to create a good cohesive piece of narrative cinema, can often pull filmmakers in two directions, so splitting a text can also be a means to ensuring there’s enough time to do justice to the author’s intentions (see also: making a miniseries). And it’s true that previous instalments have had so much plot in them, that just trying to keep up with what’s going on is quite an exercise. So going into the denouement to this wizarding saga, the producers have decided two films are necessary, and who am I to argue?

What this means in terms of the final film is that the plot’s longueurs are preserved, though I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily. It’s rare in a blockbuster for the action to slow down, but here it does on a few occasions: at one point for an extended animated sequence narrating the backstory to an arcane symbol, and at another for almost half an hour, as the protagonists try and figure out what they need to do, albeit set against some ruggedly beautiful scenic backdrops. It allows some of the interpersonal relationships to be teased out — the sense of resentment that Ron (Rupert Grint) has built up towards Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and particularly Harry’s relationship with the more intelligent Hermione (Emma Watson). And when they do all figure things out a bit better, it makes them stronger as a group — necessary if they are to face up to the final, looming battle with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

But despite the tangled interpersonal web of the film, there’s also a relative freedom, in the sense that it is set more in nature than previous instalments. Sure, there are still hideaways like the Blacks’ home in London, and an enjoyable caper sequence set in the labryinthine underbelly of the Ministry of Magic (set up by the introduction of Bill Nighy as a new Minister), but elsewhere the film sets itself in the wide expanses of various far-flung locales: an undulating beach; a rocky coastline; a woodland clearing; Lovegood’s little cottage out in the middle of a plain. That freedom to run — whether in chase of or in flight from foes — is captured by the poster, a headlong rush by the characters that pushes the quest forward to the discovery of further horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort, but it’s a feeling that in the film is in tension with those scenes of the protagonists’ confusion, doubt and stasis.

At some level, I’m not surprised to see contemporary reviews exhibiting some disappointment with this instalment, given the way it slows things down in anticipation of a breathless conclusion still a year away. However, in retrospect and in the knowledge that I’m able to immediately move on to the second half, I really appreciate the way that Deathly Hallows Part 1 paces itself and gives more time to the central characters we’ve been following for so long; few other characters make much of a mark, as their illustrious actors are shuffled off into what are basically cameos. If it represents the confused calm before a gathering and inevitable storm, it’s a pause for breath that’s richly deserved by this point.

Next (and Last): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

I suppose as a reviewer you get to the point with a long-running series where you run out of useful things to really say about it, or maybe it’s just because I’ve been writing these things every other day for the past few weeks. This sixth instalment of J.K. Rowling’s teenage wizarding series is every bit as well-crafted as the previous film, and follows in much the same vein. If anything it encompasses some even darker textures, though these are counterbalanced by some of the deftest touches of humour so far in the series, and while it draws back somewhat from the previous film’s political worldview, there’s enough here that’s enchanting.

The darkness is introduced right from the outset with an attack on London, destroying the Millennium Bridge, as well as one of the shops on the hidden little Dickensian street of the alternative wizarding world. The film closes, too, with the death of a key character, and in between is all manner of demonic details occasioned by the return of Voldemort, although some are related to the book belonging to the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ which Harry discovers. The final chapters to the saga are also set up by the revelation that Voldemort has concealed his soul in seven magical items (or “horcruxes” as they are known here), which must be destroyed in order to finally defeat him.

The darkness is of a piece with the gloomily gothical world conjured up by Rowling’s fiction and which has been elaborated in all the successive films. More interesting is the appearance of rather more levity than we’ve had so far, with all manner of situational comedy and throwaway lines from the teenage leads as the sub-plots relating to their various romantic connections are played out. Ron becomes an unlikely centre of attentions to several female characters, while Harry starts to develop feelings for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

Elsewhere the acting continues to be strong, with new recruit for this episode being the bumbling professor played by Jim Broadbent, a pleasant enough caricature but without some of the depth of previous faculty staff members (he brings to mind Kenneth Branagh’s turn more than anything else). If I liked the Half-Blood Prince in the end, perhaps a lot has to do with the way it builds on the previous episodes and sets up the denouement, and with my own greater investment in this world after five previous instalments. In any case, it’s put together nicely, and carries the viewer through with the deftest of touches.

Next: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Tom Felton; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I am unfamiliar enough with the Harry Potter saga that I miss plenty of references. For example, the pseudonym “Padfoot” is used a few times in this film to refer to Gary Oldman’s character Sirius Black, and harks back to the names on the magical map seen in the third film, but none of this is explained and I had to ask my wife to fill me in (for others in my position, the names refer to the four friends who created the map — “Padfoot” being Black, “Moony” being David Thewlis’s Lupin, “Wormtail” Timothy Spall’s Peter, and “Prongs” Harry’s now-dead father, the first two of whom return here as the core of a sort of wizarding resistance movement). Likewise, I wonder if this film is remembered for being the one in which Harry gets his first kiss (an incident very quickly brushed past), or maybe for its strong undertones of teenage ennui and moodiness? However, if it’s remembered for anything, it’s surely for the way it links in the developing story of Lord Voldemort’s return with the wider universe within which Potter resides. As such, it’s also the film where author J.K. Rowling’s political allegorising starts becoming particularly evident.

If it wasn’t yet clear what register the Potter universe works in, the opening few moments make it clear, starting as they do in bright, garish sunshine. It’s almost shocking, but it doesn’t take long for the grey lowering clouds to roll in, and we’re set for another few hours of gothic-tinged teenaged sorcery. If we hadn’t been following the series (and its actors) from the outset, we would still know right away how old they were from the hormonally self-inflated sense of angst that the first act of this film indulges in, as Harry mopes about filled with (terribly adolescent) ennui about his nascent life’s twists and turns that even Hermione and Ron are unable to snap him out of. To be fair, he’s been expelled from Hogwarts (though that’s revoked fairly swiftly), but the doubts about his character remain throughout the film, as the rest of his class are divided as to whether he is telling the truth about Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return at the end of the previous film. What’s interesting is that Rowling’s plot links in Harry’s emotional turbulence not with adolescence but with the effect of his encounter with Voldemort, whose presence looms throughout like Harry’s shadowy alter ego. There are some new characters here too, against whom Harry’s ennui is played off, mostly notably the serenely detached Luna, who shares with him a certain morbidity. On the side of the good guys is the titular Order arrayed around Michael Gambon’s wizened Dumbledore (even in a photo of them in their youth, he sports a long white beard), a revolutionary cell operating from a magically-hidden home on a well-to-do London street.

Indeed, as I mentioned above, what’s most interesting is the wider political ramifications that are opened up by Harry’s dalliance with Voldemort. Finally we begin to see what’s at stake for the entire society, as the Ministry of Magic takes on a more central role (with the Order of the Phoenix in opposition). At one level, it’s clearly dominated by Conservative ideology, and if the film’s set design and costumes hark to the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s, then that makes the Minister something of a Neville Chamberlain figure, (unwittingly perhaps) appeasing the dark forces of Voldemort’s Hitler. Indeed, as my wife has suggested, Sirius Black and his family are somewhat analogous to the aristocratic Mitfords, with Sirius as the revolutionary left-wing Jessica to his unhinged newly-introduced sister Bellatrix’s Nazi/Voldemort-sympathising Unity. (The latter is played by Helena Bonham Carter, putting in as restrained a performance as ever, i.e. not even a bit.) Even the Potter world’s newspaper, the Daily Prophet, has more than a little of the bitter tabloid muck-raking of the Daily Mail. Then again, the government’s self-important representative at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has more in common with Margaret Thatcher, so the historical parallels aren’t precise. Certainly, though, you don’t get the sense that Rowling has much love for the Tories.

None of this would matter a whole lot if the film were badly made, but I think the producers have got everything down to an art by this point, and even a change of screenwriter doesn’t seem to have dented its forward momentum. (The director and cinematographer have also changed once again, but that’s been a regular occurrence up to now, though as it happens David Yates helms all the remaining films.) There’s still a lot of plot to get through, but things are rather less convoluted now that we have a proper evil antagonist to deal with, even if he still seems to be more of an oneiric than a corporeal presence at this point. Many of the character actors we’ve been introduced to up until now show up, though some (like David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, and Emma Thompson’s divination teacher Sybill) are little more than walk-on cameos. Still, it’s a solid lead in to the surely cataclysmic denouement to the series.

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

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 30 December 2013.

All Is Lost (2013)

The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.

There’s no doubt it’s a film which has been purposely shorn of anything extraneous, though, and it doesn’t surprise me to read perplexed accounts of it from people who did not perhaps connect with its narrative minimalism. After all, there’s barely any speech in it, aside from one loudly muttered imprecation, an attempt to radio for help, and a spoken introduction. It’s that introduction which sets the film’s stall: we open at a point where the unnamed protagonist, played by the ageing Robert Redford, clearly believes himself to be beyond rescue. He is writing to an unidentified person, and his words form the film’s credo, after a fashion. He apologises, he states he was trying but has failed, and then utters the film’s title. Any further backstory is mere speculation, and one spends a lot of the film trying to glean hints of what his situation might be — he is out on the ocean all alone, but he’s wearing a wedding ring, so one could suppose that he is writing to his (estranged?) wife, maybe children. Perhaps he’s on a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps his character has made mistakes in his life that he’s trying to rectify, or maybe he’s out there because he wants to die. All is speculation.

What’s certainly clear, though, is that whatever Redford’s reasons for being out alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, once tragedy strikes, he works tirelessly to keep going. The tragic event opens the film after the spoken intro (between the two is an intertitle taking us back eight days), when his boat hits a stray shipping container and starts taking on water. From there, the film unfolds as a tense account of survivalism at sea, as the elderly but still rather spry Redford first tries to fix his boat, and then finds himself taking to a life raft to continue his journey. The setbacks he continues to face — primarily from the weather (at once stormy, then burningly hot) — make up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it all keeps things ticking along with some of the same anguished desperation that Gravity had, but in the maritime setting of Captain Phillips (another survival story, but against humans rather than nature).

Obviously, though, the religious themes are unavoidable here, most clearly in that introduction and then in a denouement (spoilers: I shall try to be oblique but you may wish to look away for this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) which can certainly be read ambiguously, with a shining light that suggests transcendence. Whatever the physical outcome for the character, the ending at the very least offers salvation, and that final image implies that this is what the protagonist has been looking for. It’s a curiously uplifting final scene. In retrospect, it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter what the specifics are of the protagonist’s failings: his journey is one of repentance matched by a final act of grace. His journey then becomes a form of ascetic denial, perhaps, taking him finally away from all comforts and connections until he is utterly cut off.

In this regard, it’s all a very Christian film about redemption, but in its broad strokes rather than putting across any specific ideology. What can certainly be said is that Robert Redford, being the only actor in the film and on screen for its entire running time, does a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult filming conditions. The lack of dialogue (meaning the lack of verbal explanations for his actions) only sharpens the subtlety of Redford’s acting, as he attends to dealing with his predicament. Of course, part of his success can be attributed to his iconic status within the firmament of motion picture stars, as we can see this character as a sort of version of those golden-haired golden boy characters he once played, but extended into extremis, and his now craggy and lined face conveys its own resonance. With its grand allegorical sweep, All Is Lost is as fine a way as any to see out a year of films.

All Is Lost film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; Starring Robert Redford; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

As the series has progressed, there’s been a definite move towards darker textures and emotions. The possibility was always hinted at by the looming gothic architecture of the main locations, but now that the leads are in the midst of adolescence, one gets the sense that the filmmakers feel safer venturing into rather more disturbing territory. Hence the presence here of the “Death Eaters”, a cult-like fraternity dedicated to the resurrection of the spectacularly creepy Lord Voldemort (played appropriately by Ralph Fiennes), as well as far more terror and peril than the previous instalments allowed — even the otherwise more assured Prisoner of Azkaban — reflected in its higher classification (a 12 certificate rather than PG for the previous films).

There’s still of course a fantastic amount of plot, as well as of wizardy nonsense, on show, making this also the longest film of the lot so far. We move breathlessly from a shadowy opening which introduces David Tennant as someone clearly evil, to the Quidditch World Cup, where the Death Eaters make their first terrorising appearance, straight on back to Hogwarts, where there’s yet another new Dark Arts teacher (Brendan Gleeson’s delightfully unhinged Professor Moody) and a big competition between three different wizarding academies which takes up the remainder of the film. Thankfully, with all this to shoehorn in, we don’t have to sit through too much Quidditch, still the silliest of all possible sports (where the spectators in the stadium get to watch teams scoring goals, while somewhere out in the ether far from view, a couple of wizards chase a little flying thing, the capture of which pretty much renders all the stadium play meaningless).

We do, however, get a sense of a far bigger world of magic, as students from two different countries enter the picture — the elegant French ladies of Beauxbatons, and the beefy Germanic boys of Durmstrang. One student from each academy gets to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and while the French lady doesn’t fare too well, somehow the weedy Harry (who is also competing, much to everyone’s surprise) manages better pitted by now against the glowering East European chap (their provenance is all rather vaguely Teutonic). There’s also a second competitor from Hogwarts, the taciturn pretty boy Cedric (played by a gurning Robert Pattinson, in his first taste of adolescent-centred blockbuster franchise filmmaking). Meanwhile, threading through the whole thing are hints at the upcoming and unholy resurrection of Lord Voldemort, and his presence in the background makes everything in the film seem rather more grave. Even the Tournament is a treacherous and potentially deadly affair, as the wizards are pitted against huge fire-breathing dragons and sent into dangerous waters to complete their quests, though health and safety has never seemed to be a particular concern of Hogwarts or the wizarding world.

The visuals are all handled perfectly competently by the director and cinematographer roped in for this latest instalment (the director being the venerable Mike Newell, a journeyman who has shown competence on comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral as on the mafia drama Donnie Brasco), and if nothing impresses quite as much as in Cuarón’s film, at least it never gets too plodding. It all adds up to a fine two-and-a-half hours of entertainment, and at long last, with the arrival of Voldemort, has begun to resolve more strongly into an ongoing storyline that one suspects will be developed further in the final four films of the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Mike Newell; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

I’d been told in advance that the third film is where the series gets good, and indeed the attachment of director Alfonso Cuarón should surely have been a good hint of this — even if I still at heart feel that this year’s Gravity was overpraised, it’s undoubtedly a visual tour de force, though even of his contemporary work, I recall enjoying his Great Expectations (1998) a great deal upon its cinematic release, primarily for its stylish visuals (if not its Gwyneth Paltrow turn). Something of the same trick has been conjured up here. In just about every respect, this is a far stronger film than the previous two, and it’s the first I can even imagine wanting to revisit.

I don’t want to get carried away with praise for Cuarón’s visual sense, as some of the credit must go to the trio of actors at the film’s heart. More time has passed between this film and the previous one, as between that and the first, and the three actors are both visibly more mature and just better at acting. There’s less childish screechiness and more nuance, and finally Emma Watson’s swotty know-it-all persona seems grounded in a genuine sense of self-confidence and learning, and she is thus rewarded with a more significant role than she had in the previous film. Nuance is something that can also be observed in the guest roles, and in fact Gary Oldman’s escaped criminal Sirius Black (the Azkaban prisoner of the title) and David Thewlis’s teacher Remus Lupin both effectively play on an expectation of one-dimensionality that comes from earlier guest acting turns (from say Branagh and Isaacs, both of whom were enjoyable but hardly suggested any depth of character), and lead to genuinely memorable surprise twists to their characters.

The script too seems tighter and more controlled, relying less on its characters rehashing events in exaggerated exclamations (except perhaps in one late scene when Harry exclaims “You were right Hermione!” and then describes exactly what we’ve just seen, though perhaps that was a self-aware joke at this very propensity in the first two films). Important plot devices are effectively foreshadowed without too much clunky exposition, and the physics of the film seems more believable (albeit yes, it’s still predicated on magic, after all). That said, there’s still plenty of plot — almost too much at times — which leads to occasional stretches where it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on, such as when one of those aforementioned character twists takes place and suddenly you’re wondering who this Peter chap is after all. Undoubtedly a lot of this must make far more sense to readers of the books.

But as I suggested earlier, ultimately it’s the film’s visual sense which has most improved, and for this it must surely be the director who can take the credit. The first two films made far too much use of very ostentatious crane shots, all swooping and gliding in dramatic show-offy ways, and although the camera here is hardly at any point still, it nevertheless feels more organic to the action. There are some really very well-handled transitions, such as one glorious shot following Harry’s pet owl that takes us swiftly from summer into winter, though that’s just one example. Elsewhere the set design has an inventiveness that recalls similarly fantastic films by Cuarón’s Mexican compatriot Guillermo del Toro, like the Monstrous Book of Monsters, itself a monster, or the wraith-like demons who stalk the castle grounds (these Dementors also allow for some tentative social critique, providing a strange little hint into the existence of an autocratic police state, as despite their professed task of hunting down the criminal Sirius, the students are warned that the Dementors can still pose a danger even to those who are not lawbreakers). Finally, there’s even some genuine levity amongst the darkly-tinged drama, such as the jaunty Knight Bus ride, the broad comedy of Emma Thompson’s Divination teacher, or the sight of Alan Rickman dressed as a fashionable old lady.

This, then, is a film that brings the Potter world alive in a way that finally makes some cinematic sense. The series is opened out with a sense of wonder that hints at a darker, more adult world to come, appropriate to its ageing (though still adolescent) stars. It’s also the first of the films to make me genuinely want to know more of the story and the characters, and that’s not something I’d have considered saying ten years ago.

Next: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Michael Seresin; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 December 2013.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

When I wrote about The Paperboy earlier this year, I talked a lot about what for me is the defining quality of a two-star film (at least under my ratings system as it was; now I have a category called “mediocre” but you could also call it a 5/10 or grade it a solid B), and this new film from Ben Stiller hits all those middling marks. There are plenty of ways in which this is not objectively a good movie (if such a critical standpoint can be said to exist), but it’s one I found fascinating in all its strangeness. Unlike The Paperboy, Walter Mitty does seem to be straining after awards credibility — which may explain its pre-Christmas release date — but at its heart it’s every bit as perplexing as the more luridly pulpy Paperboy.

For a start, there’s the fairly vacuous plot: man fears he has wasted his life, seeks to fill it. This may work in the short story format, but over a feature length it comes off as rather obvious. The titular character apparently feels there’s nothing interesting about his life as the film starts, but yet he’s standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, commuting to a job at Life magazine — his work preparing photographs for publication is actually quite fascinating (this isn’t The Office). Life is being downsized by a team led by a one-dimensional bad manager played by Adam Scott (distinguished only by a beard that makes him look like an Ancient Persian king), which swiftly brings him into conflict with Mitty. Star photographer Sean (Penn) has sent an iconic photo for the last print edition’s cover, but Mitty can’t find it and uses this as a pretext to travel the world, something he’s missed doing over the course of his life. Thus does one man seek to ‘find himself’ with all the connotations of that hollow phrase.

Then there’s the way the film presents this story and Mitty’s quest. I don’t deny that the images are at times gorgeous (shot by veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh), but within the film they come across like the advertising that precedes this and so many other movies. Partly that’s the way that the kind of Tourist Board-approved aspirational imagery of untouched wildernesses is blended with that strain of modern music so beloved of advertisers, with all its lushly-produced and multi-instrumented promise of something epiphanic — the Arcade Fire being the key example here. It doesn’t really help that product placement is so front-and-centre: the framing story involves Mitty creating a profile on a prominent internet dating site, while his trip to Iceland involves him coming across a chain pizza restaurant which as far as I can tell doesn’t actually have any outlets in that country.

Maybe this stuff could be chalked up to Mitty’s persistent fantasising, but I doubt it. After all, his character’s key habit in the first third of the film is in imagining different outcomes for events he’s participating in, going off into reveries of heroism until the point that he actually does this for real. Thus, as the film progresses, one could follow a reading that his fantasies have taken on such increasingly epic proportions that he is ultimately controlling the very narrative and mise en scène of the film he’s in. In a sense, that’s true, in so far as the star of the film (playing Mitty) is its director, Ben Stiller. Certainly, none of what Mitty does as the film progresses seems particularly realistic, but the way it comes across is like one of those mood-establishing adverts for something aspirational like a luxury car, or aftershave, or visiting Iceland (pro tip: it’s probably worth visiting Iceland, but not for its American chain pizza restaurants). At one point it even turns into a pastiche of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in which Stiller starred) for a few moments, the ultimate filmic index of stylised unreality.

The effect of all of this is to render the film fascinating to me, as if it were instead a film dramatising the creative compromises that are required to make a major Hollywood motion picture. It doesn’t hurt that the way the narrative progresses is so discursive, like a shaggy dog story or, perhaps more apropos, like a series of skits for Saturday Night Live. Mitty’s escapist fantasies, for example, could easily be stand-alone YouTube clips, and at their funniest (the hilarious parody of Benjamin Button) deserve success in this format. But elsewhere the film just feels unfocused. One moment, Mitty is in New York trying to figure out how to make the object of his affections — Cheryl, a temp played by the winning Kristen Wiig (herself an alum of SNL) — pay him some attention, and the next he’s dropping from a helicopter onto a fishing trawler, or skateboarding down the lower reaches of an active Icelandic volcano, or playing kickball in the Himalayas. And when he finally meets photographer Sean before returning to his life in the States, the film just seems to grind to a halt to take in an (admittedly enjoyable) conversation with Patton Oswalt at LAX.

That discursiveness — the film’s openness to just taking in whatever it likes the look of or thinks is funny, however obliquely it may relate to the advancement of the ostensible plot — is both the weakest element of the film and also what I found most strangely satisfying. Though I also liked all the cast members, from Ben Stiller’s salaryman (whose buttoned-down, almost straight edge, style makes him oddly believable in the subplot wherein he is a former skatepunk) to the lovely Kristen Wiig and the spiky Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother. Plus there is a surprisingly generous number of laugh-out-loud moments.

I’ve tried with this review to make a case for what I liked about the film, but I’ll probably never convince either you or myself that it’s a great film or even worth watching a second time. But I enjoyed my trip with Stiller and co. that first time even if I’ll probably end up sticking with my uneventful office job.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty film posterCREDITS
Director Ben Stiller; Writer Sean Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 25 November 2013.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

I’m not sure where to begin with this film. It’s too long for a start. It’s ridiculous, filled with all kinds of supernatural phenomena and pseudo-religious mysticism, and there’s seldom a moment when the protagonists are not running around doing something that defies logic or sense. There are scenes that are so overwhelmingly over-the-top that I can’t believe that everyone didn’t just burst out laughing when staging them. But then again, maybe they did and maybe that’s the point. I found the film likeable quite in spite of itself, somewhat the way I felt about the Twilight Saga. Maybe I’m just projecting, but amongst all the po-faced battles against demons, it seemed like the film had its tongue firmly in its cheek.

I was introduced to this oeuvre as having derived from Harry Potter fanfiction communities, but what The Mortal Instruments offers is more a pastiche of every fantasy film ever, via some classic horror thrills and action-adventure hijinks. It twists the Twilight paradigm in having the female lead be the most powerful character (though sure, she does go through a period of being weepy and defenseless while she learns her powers), but there’s scarcely a single shot or a narrative trope that seems original. Still, it keeps things moving at a swift pace, since the idea of recycling familiar narrative motifs is to avoid unnecessary explication — when the film does deign to explain the world of Mundanes and Shadowhunters, it’s all a bit surplus to requirements.

The dialogue, sadly, is the weakest element. And yet, although the characters mouth the most stultifyingly banal platitudes, somehow it works in the context of this kind of film. A central romantic scene takes place in a rooftop gardens of the Institute where all the Shadowhunters live (a large gothic cathedral invisible in the centre of New York City), where under a gauzy camera filter, mystical green lights play amongst the fecund flowerbeds, where the characters leaning in for a kiss is accompanied by unnaturally-coloured plants flowering and rain pouring (inside!), over the top of which plays a teasingly banal pop power ballad (“Heart by Heart”, by Demi Lovato, which I just listened to, and quite enjoy outside the context of this particular scene). As I said, it’s the very archetype of ridiculousness, but that’s fine. There need be no deep character insights — I have no idea what motivates any of them, and even central character Clary (pronounced “Clarry”)’s backstory is cast into some doubt by the end. Everyone just knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and the film is in a way bold by not explaining it.

I haven’t really mentioned the plot or most of the central characters yet, partly because none of it really matters. There’s a lot of supernatural hocus pocus and earnest entreaties that “the stories are all true”, but perhaps the most magical thing about the film may well be the fact that just off the packed avenues of Brooklyn is a verdant little street of cottages where Clary (played by Lily Collins) and her mother live. Clary is at the heart of the film in her quest for a sacred Cup (one of the titular ‘Mortal Instruments’), much desired by chief villain Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She’s aided in her quest variously by the Shadowhunters — a group of pasty-faced goths, who as ever are headed by a wise older English character actor (here it’s Jared Harris) — and by some werewolves, who perhaps appropriately take as their human form what looks like a group of hipster craft-beer drinkers. And then there are her dalliances with nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) and pretty blond Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), who has, in the finest style, a secret past. Or does he? I haven’t even mentioned the role Johann Sebastian Bach plays, but it’s probably the funniest bit in this whole ridiculous mess.

I’ve tried, though, to avoid giving the impression that I hated this film, mainly because I thought it to be rollicking great fun, like a supernatural Goonies. The possibility of further instalments comes via a line delivered by Jared Harris (along the lines of “it’s a war we can never win, but must keep fighting forever”), which rather suggests an infinity of sequels, but given this first film’s box office performance that may never happen. And yet, though it may not be a cinematic masterpiece, it’s an enjoyably silly ride through a fantasy-adventure theme park.

CREDITS
Director Harald Zwart; Writer Jessica Postigo Paquette (based on the novel City of Bones by Cassandra Clare); Cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen; Starring Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jared Harris; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Stratford East, London, Wednesday 28 August 2013.

Jurassic Park (1993)

One of the more successful of summer blockbuster tentpole films is now 20 years old, and with some small caveats it has aged very well, all things considered. A lot of this is down to Steven Spielberg’s very sure directorial hand: he has been one of the industry’s most successful directors, and for the good reason that he exhibits well-honed craft and even a bit of flair, but not the kind that constantly draws attention to itself, with swift editing, big setpieces, noise and action (sorry, Michael Bay).

The most remarked-upon aspect of the film at the time was of course the CGI dinosaurs, but technology has changed a lot in 20 years, and viewing the film in retrospect is to indulge in some of that wistfulness you get while watching, say, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion figures from the 1950s. The CGI is still grappling with conveying a sense of the weight and physicality of these creatures in a way that recent films have only just started to master (with Pacific Rim the current high-water point, though who knows how that will look in a few decades). Nevertheless by the time things kick off, you barely notice the dinosaurs aren’t real anymore.

What’s impressive then — what remains impressive — is the firm hold Spielberg has over the narrative tension, as the characters are first introduced and then gradually put into perilous situations. Just to backtrack a little for those that don’t know the film, an eccentric billionaire, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), has been able to clone dinosaurs, bringing them back to life to repopulate an island he owns as a prospective theme park. After the death of one of his workers, he recruits a number of experts — including palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie (Laura Dern), as well as mathematician and chaos theorist Ian (Jeff Goldblum) and his own grandchildren — to come and certify the park is safe. Naturally of course it’s not, though this is only exacerbated by the corrupt machinations of one of the key staff members (it does not appear to be a particularly well-staffed park, and the scientists and gamekeepers we do glimpse earlier on seem to quickly disappear as storm clouds approach).

Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were ever A-list film stars, but that’s always been one blockbuster strategy: use seasoned character actors in the lead roles (often where the initial draw is something else, such as, well, dinosaurs). It also pays dividends in the long run, as successive generations of viewers don’t have to cringe so much at the one-dimensional action heroics of whoever was the biggest star at the time. Richard Attenborough too gets to be dependably avuncular, so it’s Jeff Goldblum that stands out as the nervy, black-clad mathematician, a sort of Cassandra figure whose prophecies are disregarded until it’s too late. It’s interesting too to see an early Samuel L. Jackson performance as a slightly nerdy, anxiety-prone and put-upon engineer, a year before the Pulp Fiction role that made his name and largely fixed his screen persona.

In any case, Spielberg gets to pursue a few of his favourite themes. There are the fatherless children seeking and finding a surrogate father figure, with Sam Neill’s reluctant Dr Grant by the end stepping up to this role. There’s also a familiar sense of wonder at the natural world (those swooping shots of the island and its lush jungle ecosystem, or the vast hordes of dinosaurs causing our heroes to take shelter under a log), but it’s allied here with some concerns about the limits of scientific endeavour.

Ultimately, though, by bringing into conflict two quite different eras of the planet’s history (not a million miles from the premise of Pacific Rim mentioned above, with its weirdly primordial monsters), it addresses some of the ethics of cloning — a debate that would only increase with Dolly the sheep a few years after the film — while remaining a taut and effective thriller for adults and kids alike. This ability to balance different levels of a debate within a populist mode of filmmaking, more than anything, is Spielberg’s real talent.

CREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp (based on the novel by Crichton); Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 13 August 2013 (and in the cinema in Wellington, back when it was first released).