Archive | June 2011

The Harry Potter saga: Was it any good?

The movie adaptations of JK Rowling’s beloved books began almost 10 years ago with HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Since then we’ve seen another 6 films released, over 1000 minutes of screen time and one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Now, with the new Harry Potter film coming out this summer (UK release date: 15 July 2011) I ask were they any good? And will it be worth battling through the crowds at your local multiplex to view the last instalment?

1: The series started off with Chris Columbus at the helm and a veritable who’s who of British actors representing the various witches and wizards. Much of the casting is solid with Robbie Coltrane putting in an inspired performance as Hagrid and Alan Rickman providing an appropriately slivery Snape. Unfortunately the film is far too faithful to the book and this leaves it looking and feeling wooden, uninspired and lacking imagination. Books and films are different: they need different emphases and pacing. But this film is timid and just goes through the motions. So, despite the hype surrounding the film, it was painfully boring.

2: Moving on to the second film (HP and the Chamber of Secrets): same problems, slightly better cinematography (darker, Hogwarts feels like an old creepy castle instead of a cartoon castle), a few jokes to break up the boredom, but all in all an overly long and equally timid adaptation of the book. In addition, the second film marks the point at which Daniel Radcliffe’s lack of charisma and acting ability begin to be a problem.

3: HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban – there was a change of direction in the series with this film. Columbus was replaced as director by Alfonso Cuarón and Michael Gambon came in as Dumbledore due to the death of Richard Harris. In addition, Gary Oldman was introduced as HP’s enigmatic, falsely-imprisoned godfather, Sirius Black. All of these moves proved successful and Azkaban was the first film to actually engage with the source material – offering an interpretation of the story and characters instead of providing a pale imitation like its two predecessors. As well as a more engaging story and adopting an appealingly dark feel, this film is well-measured in terms of its rites of passage theme. The kids are growing up and Cuarón handles this appropriately to give the film emotional weight. Another Cuarón success is the wealth of subtext and not-too-showy metaphor which gives the film a sense of depth and richness. HP3: a definite success and probably the best of the lot.

4: HP and the Goblet of fire – Another new director (Mike Newell), so how well did he do? The fourth instalment is a success in continuing the growing up theme of the previous film. It brings in some well-done teenage angst and awkward romance. In addition, the growing sense of dread, fear and confusion both within Hogwarts and in the wider world comes across effectively (maybe a little too much). Nevertheless, Newell is not bold enough and sticks to the book too closely. The film begins strongly – HP’s dream about Voldemort and then the Quidditch World Cup are exciting and narratively useful. (as an aside point – all Quidditch scenes in HP films are terrible. They are badly shot, blurry, boring and pointless). Unfortunately the film dwells on the teenage angst elements for too long – the Yule Ball seems to be given precedence over the return of Voldemort. Moreover, the action sequences are strangely boring. HP’s fight with a dragon and the climatic showdown are both disappointingly pedestrian, although Ralph Fiennes is predictably good as the menacingly creepy Voldemort. This film feels disjointed, with some strange edits and persistence with unnecessary elements. Basically, it tries to do too much and follow the book too closely when the film-makers should’ve been more selective and created a coherent, cohesive narrative.

5: HP and the Order of the Phoenix – as the titles get increasingly silly, the bad guys get worse (or is it better…) Either way, Immelda Staunton is excellent as the sickly-sweet Dolores Umbridge, and Helena Bonham Carter and Fiennes shine as Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort, respectively. For the longest HP book new director David Yates had to be careful with what to include. Certainly on that score 5 is an improvement on 4, with an increased focus on the central HP vs Voldemort (good vs evil) plot-line and a very well executed showdown between Dumbledore and Voldemort. However, because there is less emphasis on many of the characters we have come to know in previous films, the unevenness of the series as a whole becomes more apparent. Lots of the characters and relationships get lost in the rush to the Death-Eater/Order of the Phoenix battle. Chief among these is the Sirius/HP relationship which doesn’t carry the emotional weight it should.

6: HP and the Half-Blood Prince: This one was really quite boring: Too many overlong scenes and lots of inessential fluff which is entirely superfluous to the central plot. That plot seems to consist of the need to extract a memory from Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) in order to confirm something that Dumbledore pretty much already knows anyway. So, all in all, I feel like this is a waste of 2 hours 30 mins. Oh yeah and Dumbledore dies!

7: Part 1: To be honest, it’s just a set-up for Part 2. It felt like the quiet before the storm. There was no Hogwarts and very little from any of the adult cast. Perhaps some more Snape would have been welcome. Some positive stuff: Dobby (always good to watch), the nice little animated explanation of the deathly hallows is a highlight and in all fairness, some of the HP, Ron and Hermione character development is well executed. However, this does drag on. The drained colour gives the whole film the necessary feeling of melancholy and this is topped off by Dobby’s death at the end. It wasn’t bad, but it did feel like a set-up.

There are several problems with HP which run throughout the series:

1. Daniel Radcliffe is an intensely annoying screen presence. Much of the films’ believability rests on his ability to convey longing for his family and later, love for his friends (and in general to be able to act differently in different situations – I think they call it acting). However, Radcliffe seems stuck on one mode: awkward defiance. At best his on-screen transition from boy to hero has been stumbling, at worst it has threatened to ruin the series.

2. Dumbledore always reveals lots of things near the end of each book – to tie up loose ends and keep you in suspense throughout the rest of the book. This doesn’t work with the films.

3. Too many directors – there was no overarching vision from the outset about what the films should look like. Consequently, we’ve ended up with a disjointed and uneven series.

I wait in anticipation for the 8th film!

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X-Men: First Class (2011) – Review

By far the best superhero movie this year to date – 7/10

Dir. Matthew Vaughn

This truly is a period in cinema that is stuffed with comic book adaptations. Every other month we hear news of another superhero film on the horizon. Despite VERY few exceptions to the rule these are typically large budget affairs that bookmark Hollywood’s attempts at establishing or maintaining franchises. We have already seen the likes of the lighthearted but utterly pants Green Hornet and the mediocre yet entertaining Thor but these two films are just the beginning of a long list of superhero movies that 2011 has in store for us. Most of these franchises are new to the big screen, such as Captain America and Green Lantern, that will have high hopes of box office success (and build a base from which to release money-making sequels). However, we also have the old, familiar franchises to reacquaint ourselves with, such as X-Men. Arguably this is a franchise that laid the foundations for the many hugely popular superhero films which we are seeing today. X-2: X-Men United was a film that dispelled the erroneous assumption that superheroes had to be childish figures. With its grittier stance proving the merit of a decent comic book film, it helped, along with films such as Spider-man, to pave the way for the seemingly unstoppable success of the superhero flick. Unfortunately, X2 really was the last decent X-Men film and after the last two additions to the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you wouldn’t be wrong in declaring that the X-Men saga had gone stale. Current trends suggest that when this dreaded state of staleness emerges you have two options: reboot like Spider-Man or introduce a prequel or back-story which focuses on the most established characters.

X-Men: First Class is the second ‘origins/prequel’ film in this series, it’s a second attempt at reinvigorating the flagging franchise after the miserable failure of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This time we have more than just a handful of X-Men to contend with, as First Class tells of the beginnings of several key characters with whom we are already well acquainted. The X-Men founder Charles Xavier (James Mcavoy) and his long time opponent Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), better known as Magneto, are the prominent characters here and the first act of the film provides us with an insight into the two. We learn how they came to be good friends in the 1960s, despite their vastly different lives and backgrounds. Xavier has had a very secure and privileged upbringing and is close to finishing a PhD at Oxford with a certain future in genetics, whilst Erik is twisted and tormented by the rage built up from having seen his family torn apart at the hands of the Nazis. Those that have seen the first X-Men movie will remember the bleak concentration camp scene at the beginning of that film. This scene is reused and implemented in the same way as before but expanded upon to show the Nazis attempting to use his special ‘talents’. It is safe to say Erik has had a far worse deal than his fellow protagonist. When the film jumps to 1962 we find Charles indulging in the finer elements of university life, beer and women. In between beer bongs and fanciful chat up lines, Charles is accompanied by the young marvel named Foxx (Jennifer Lawrence) who later comes to be named Mystique. Erik on the other hand is on a solo mission to avenge his lost childhood and kill his Nazi captor, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

All this is played out with the backdrop of the Cold War and what emerges is an alternate history that is as absurd as it is entertaining. First Class asks us to imagine the Cuban Missile Crisis as a point in X-Men lore where the mutants fracture into opposing sides and grab the attention of the world. It is a somewhat satisfying origins story that explains well enough the differing ideologies of the mutants, a fracture that we know will come close to tearing the world apart on several occasions in the future.

Despite it being adequate enough, X-Men: First Class’ highlights don’t come from its uninspiring plot line but from its characters. The performances on show are all decent and the cast has been well chosen. A believable crew of mutants manage to convey the emotions and personal griefs of each character successfully. James McAvoy plays the professor with heavy reference to Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of the role; he is the familiar Charles Xavier of the past movies. The performance that impresses most, however, is that of Michael Fassbender as Magneto. He brings to the role an impressive depth, as Erik’s twisted past brings an abrasive edge to his character. This is evident in the malice shown towards those that wish to experiment upon mutants as well as those who see mutants as a threat to the rest of humanity. His pragmatic views are conveyed with conviction by Fassbender’s undeniable gravitas. He conjures up a character that is as foreboding as he is vulnerable, traits that are expressed over a smattering of powerful scenes, inspiring a lot empathy for his character. Among the rest of the cast we have some respectable performances from the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, bringing a much needed insight into the workings of mystique. January Jones puts to good use her suitable enigmatic aura playing the ice queen Emma Frost and Nicholas Hoult does a decent job at playing the self conscious Hank McCoy, aka Beast. The only real odd-ball is Rose Byrne’s CIA character who feels like a tag-along that is out of her depth when set alongside the mutants.

The acting is not the only aspect of this film that is of high quality, as Matthew Vaughn has carried across his expected sleek visuals from his previous superhero film Kick-Ass. The 1960s setting is imagined perfectly (January Jones’ Emma Frost looks like she has been plucked straight out of a Bond movie) and by the time we reach the film’s centre-piece we have been offered an impressive spread of special effects. But, it is not without fault. This is a long film that has managed to handle a spaghetti junction of origin stories without it feeling stuffy, nevertheless, as the plot progresses it begins to drag in places and resorts to some unimaginative set-ups that feel too formulaic to excite. For such a well made film it is disappointing that it feels like yet another Superhero film, despite its plaudits, which leaves no genuinely unique impression on the viewer. Part of this could be due to the absence of Vaughn’s trademark approach to the film, besides the visuals, it does feel a bit ‘characterless’ from a director that made such a promising impression in Kick-Ass. There he succeeded in making a film that was exciting, funny and demonstrated an admirably uncompromising style. Here we just have an unimaginative, by the book, yet productionally sound picture, devoid of personality. I suppose this could have been expected given that this was Vaughn’s big bang into the mainstream; so no surprises for its formulaic approach, it’s just a shame we didn’t get to see him at his best.

That said, I enjoyed this film for the small details such as the cast – notably Fassbender – and the production values. It is no standout achievement, but more of a workman-like success. It has put the series back on the right track – back to the darker moods and emphasis on the characters. This is what the fans of the movies were asking for and it will no doubt get the thumbs up from the faithful comic book crowd. A lot was riding on this movie and it has done the job it set out to do. In addition, it is by far the best superhero movie this year to date.

Somewhere (2010) – Review

Somewhere is not without merit but unfortunately it covers little new ground and fails to pack the emotional punch necessary to fully engage the viewer – 5/10

Dir. Sofia Coppola

Johnny Marco (Steven Dorff) is a Hollywood actor who’s hedonistic lifestyle has left him lonely, bored and depressed. He moves from day to day drinking a lot, smoking a lot and having sex with different beautiful women. Although his life seems luxurious and some would say desirable, it lacks purpose and meaningful relationships. When his semi-estranged daughter comes to stay and their relationship develops, the shallowness of his movie star existence is brought home. This relationship is well done and Elle Fanning plays his daughter very convincingly. However, if you have seen Lost In Translation then you will notice some similarities (to put it lightly). Lost In Translation was a more glossy affair, with Somewhere adopting a more rugged style of camerawork and although the sets are not shabby, there is something less pristine and altogether more seedy about Johnny Marco’s surroundings. However, both focus on a disaffected American star and feature a sparse screenplay employed to convey sadness and loneliness. In fact, Sofia is telling us the same thing twice – Hollywood appears glamorous but can be a very lonely place.

I am sure there is some truth to this. I am also sure that Sofia Coppola is extremely knowledgeable on this issue. Nevertheless, Somewhere has nothing to say that Lost In Translation did not and it is a less accomplished film. There are scenes which drag and others where we are meant to be amused by Johnny’s boredom; there are scenes where potential conflict boils up and then simmers down without ever erupting. Unfortunately, none of this really works as it is meant to and we are left with a pretty boring, self-indulgent movie. Coppola’s direction is accomplished – some would say too technically correct – however in attempting to tell us that Johnny’s life is boring she produces a film which is lifeless and emotionless. Johnny himself barely speaks so we learn only a limited amount about his life and career. If this film is meant to be some form of Bildungsroman then I’m afraid Marco doesn’t travel very far and it is hard not to leave the cinema thinking, ‘I didn’t get much out of that and I don’t think Johnny Marco did either’. For her next film I hope that Coppola moves out of her comfort zone and produces something altogether more surprising and interesting.

Due Date (2010) – Review

Lazy, derivative and there are not enough laughs – 4/10

Dir. Todd Phillips

Due Date has been dubbed by many as ‘The Hangover 2’. This is to some extent a fair valuation. In both films mismatched blokes must rush back home to attend important events. In The Hangover this is a wedding and in Due Date, Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) is a having a child and wishes to be there for the birth. In both films the main characters encounter bad luck and a series of unfortunate situations largely because of the incomprehensible stupidity of Zach Galifianakis. Both films feature a Zach Galifianakis character who is in equal measure moronic, childlike and deluded. In Due Date this man is called Ethan Tremblay and to Peter Highman’s annoyance he is forced to road trip with Ethan back to Los Angeles after they both get thrown off a plane.

The director Todd Phillips clearly hoped that this premise (two contrasting personalities stuck in a car) would lead to hilarious consequences. Unfortunately, in large parts the scriptwriting is lazy and Downey Jr approaches his supposedly short-tempered character with some nonchalance. It is true to say that there are funny moments and aspects – like Galifianakis’s ridiculous walk – but they are too infrequent and thin to carry the film. Downey Jr’s about turn (from angry suit to understanding nice guy) is too extreme and easy. Galifianakis is amusing and somewhat disgusting in parts but in the end the dynamic between the two characters is not energetic enough to fill a whole film. Jamie Foxx’s interlude had the potential to be a real highlight but it was too brief and again enacted in a lazy manner. Due Date borrows too heavily from The Hangover and fails to take advantage of Downey Jr’s comic potential. I wouldn’t rush to go and see this one.