Noah (2014)

I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).

Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.

I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.

So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.

Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.

As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.

Noah film posterCREDITS
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.

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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).

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.

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.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

I was a bit underwhelmed I suppose by the first film in this series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and though I can hardly say the second part has assuaged my concerns and brought me fully into Harry Potter fandom, I can at least report back that it is no worse than the first part. In fact, it generally extends it down into the lower depths of Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures (thus bigger challenges) are lurking. If the shadowy (and non-corporeal) Lord Voldemort was alluded to a number of times in the first film, this is his first appearance as the actual antagonist, which makes it generally a stronger outing.

As it’s a film aimed at children, that still leaves us with the preppy and perky young trio as the leads, whose appeal I am still trying to appreciate, but which may never be possible at my advanced age. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have cannily recruited further British acting talent, this time emphasising the hammy, but in the best possible ways. Most prominently, we now have Kenneth Branagh playing, as he is wont to do (such as in My Week with Marilyn), a heightened and caricatured version of himself — or at least the self I want to believe is Kenneth Branagh. His Gilderoy Lockhart is a preening self-regarding celebrity-obsessed author whose cheerful pomposity is merely a cover for a lack of talent. And then there’s the wonderful Jason Isaacs fantastically overacting as a devilishly calculating Lucius Malfoy, father to one of the more interesting (because morally ambiguous) children, Draco.

However, for the rest of this (even longer) instalment, there’s still plenty of running about, doing stuff, discovering secrets and generally getting into silly japery on the part of the children. If it’s uninspiring in its details (those I can remember), it’s also undemanding on the viewer, though there a few little details added into the mix, such as the incipient racism trumpeted by Draco Malfoy, who objects to Hermione and Harry on the basis of their mixed-blood ancestry (part-wizard, part-human, or ‘Muggles’ as non-magical humans are called here, hence the portmanteau slur “Mudblood”). This is added to the first film’s blatant classism against Ron, ensuring that our trio of questing magical adolescents have at least our sympathy as viewers. The Chamber of Secrets thus keeps the story alive and moving forward, if not adding any greater insight into the trio’s developing stories, or extending the filmmaking skills on show beyond the merely workmanlike.

Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 21 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001)

It’s coming up to the Christmas season, so it seems like as fitting a time as any to kick off watching this series of fantasy kids’ films (even if the choice wasn’t entirely under my control).


Is this really the first instalment of a much-beloved modern classic? To be fair, I could have asked the same thing after watching The Fast and the Furious, made the same year, but I came to have an affection for that series, so I may yet come to feel similarly about this one. After all, the whole thing had largely passed me by (I was 24 when this movie came out), though living in London I can watch for many uninterrupted minutes the enthusiastic people who still, even now, queue up to get their photos taken by the really rather naff half-trolley in a random brick wall labelled Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station. Until now, the only film I had seen of the series was the very last one (half of one, really, wasn’t it?) when my wife took me along a few years back. Well, now she’s making me watch the whole thing, and on the basis of the first instalment, I wouldn’t have picked it as a world-beating crowd-pleaser.

That all said, I can hardly deny it has its pleasures. For example, there’s an occasional sense of wonder at this act of wholesale world creation, even if it’s a patchwork quilt of various eras and designs: the street scene early on presents a jumble of different eras all smashed together with a Dickens-by-way-of-Muppets Christmas Carol aesthetic; there are grand old Elizabethan houses and mediæval castles; and a Victorian train journey peopled by spiffing what-ho Famous Five public school archetypes. There’s some great character acting in the minor roles; basically the entire supporting cast is made up of venerable British acting talent, with all-too-brief walk-on parts for actors as distinguished as John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Zoë Wanamaker and Julie Walters (those are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head). Thankfully, we get to see a bit more of the wonderful Alan Rickman, truly a master of cinematic face acting (with a major in grimacing), and the underrated Ian Hart, both teachers at the grand Hogwarts school for wizards.

The main cast, though, at least look the part, even if Robbie Coltrane’s northern accent is rather faltering at times. It’s probably not fair to criticise the kids, as it’s their first feature film after all, but then they are required to do a fair bit of running around and recounting plot points to one another in increasingly shrill voices, so they do the best they can. Rupert Grint gets all the comedy pratfalls, while Emma Watson gets the best character, the determinedly swotty and self-important Hermione. For me, it’s the rather leaden dialogue that these characters have to deliver which is the film’s chief weakness, but then I daresay it needs to be comprehensible to a wide range of viewers after all.

Truth be told, even though I watched it last night, and despite its extensive running time, I’m having trouble recalling any particular details of the thing. It passes by in a likeable haze of familiar faces, referential set design, recycled plots and (I’m guessing, given there was still plenty of minor stuff I didn’t quite understand) in-jokes for the book’s readers. It’s never precisely clear what the stakes are for the characters, but it all cleaves to familiar storytelling tropes, so knowing precisely what the philosopher’s stone of the title does, or why it matters, isn’t really so important. And at this point, we know our heroes must prevail, so the key is not what happens at the end as how it all gets there. Thankfully, despite being slightly plodding at times, it’s mostly an enjoyable journey.

Next: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer John Seale; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 17 December 2013.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

There’s not a great deal to be said about this likeable piece of cinematic fluff, so I’ll keep this review short. It deals with events around the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) as seen through the eyes of its Third Assistant Director, Colin Clark, who released two books on this (undoubtedly to him) memorable period of his life. It hardly answers any questions the viewer may have about Marilyn Monroe’s life (she is an evanescent presence at the heart of the film), but affords Michelle Williams plenty of opportunity to craft a fine cinematic performance, as well as showcasing a wonderfully barking egotistical turn by Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, a man surely close to his own actor-directorial heart.

Of course, the protagonist is Clark himself, played by an affable Eddie Redmayne, but he holds little real interest as a character. Clark is a young man born of wealth and privilege, who appears to have met Olivier at a family party (his father was the art historian Kenneth Clark), and is seen tenaciously going after a minor job on his latest production as the film opens. When My Week with Marilyn is focusing on Clark and his feelings — first toward costume assistant Lucy (the ever-lovely Emma Watson) and then Marilyn herself — it drags somewhat, despite Redmayne’s best efforts. It’s when Branagh or Williams are on screen that things liven up, not to mention Judi Dench as straight-talking veteran thesp Dame Sybil Thorndike.

These are not performances that expend any great effort at trying to look as authentic as possible — of course, Williams has Monroe’s peroxided blonde hair, but that seems to be as far as things go — but at capturing an essence of their spirit. In this, Williams seems to have done very well, modulating her voice to capture Marilyn’s on-screen breathiness, and the sequence of her doing a little dance in her showgirl character is delightful. Branagh goes for a self-important pompousness and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs as a result, showing Olivier to be breathlessly undiplomatic in his last directorial role. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a vast number of recognisable British character actors, ensuring as a result that the picture moves along nimbly. It’s never less than likeable and diverting, and in most moods — especially at the end of a long week, with a glass of wine in hand — that’s just fine by me.

My Week with Marilyn film posterCREDITS
Director Simon Curtis; Writer Adrian Hodges (based on the diaries The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and the memoir My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Judi Dench; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 November 2013.