Another Day, Another POTTER

28 11 2010

The HARRY POTTER movies aren’t made for me. Sure, I’ve seen them all, but as someone who hasn’t cracked the binding of one of J.K. Rowling’s books, I’ve viewed the films with pleasant apathy, and as far as I can tell, that’s just fine with the filmmakers. Though admirable, even excellent by turns, the film series has basically played as a visual checklist for Pott-heads: there’s the flying horse thing, there’s the gnome or some shit, there’s Hagrid, he looks just like I imagined him, but then I imagine every literary character as a ten foot tall Robbie Coltrane… Every time I see an installment, I feel like the guy at his girlfriend’s office Christmas party, standing by the bar, smiling politely through introductions of co-workers whose names I’ve heard many times. “Honey, this is Dobby, the elf I was telling you about.”

Every British Actor Ever, pictured here in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART ONE

Until now, the two best HP films have been the third and fourth, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (by Alfonso Cuaron) and HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (by Mike Newell.) The former is the standard bearer of the series; rich in subtext, mysterious, rewarding as a stand-alone story, and Gary Oldman’s in it. The latter is structured around a wizardry tournament, which makes it accessible and exciting to even the uninitiated, and Ralph Fiennes is in it. After the highs of those two, however, the series hit a perhaps inevitable speed bump. The last two films, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and HALF BLOOD PRINCE, were victims of the flash-fry condensation of so much information (approximately 1500 pages between the two) into so little screen time (approximately 300 minutes.) Plot points zoom by, seemingly major references whoosh right over your head, and, most egregiously, Gary Oldman gets killed in about three seconds, and is mourned for about thirty. This isn’t just a problem for me, someone who, without the basis of the books, emerged from the last two movies confused and irritated. It was a problem for Pott-heads, too. Surely a 100mph supermarket sweep through the world they love isn’t their idea of a good time either. Though I long ago accepted that the HP films aren’t made for me, the last two didn’t seem to be made for fans, either.

Gimme the fuckin' keys you fuckin' cocksucker!

Perhaps the poor pacing in those installments led to the decision to divide the series’ climax HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films. Perhaps it was just the opportunity to double revenue for Warner Brothers. Regardless of the reasoning, it appears this bifurcation has done just the trick. DEATHLY HALLOWS is one of the good ones. If nothing else it represents a vindication of David Yates, who’s directed the last three films in the series; one could have accused him of fumbling the snitch after Newell’s GOBLET, but his able work here points to the true culprit of the last two films’ failure: the horrors of orthodox plot servitude. PHOENIX and PRINCE were crammed so full of event that the characters of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, our protagonists, were rendered totally bland. There wasn’t a moment of real sympathy for them – or real connection between them – just a series of hurdles for them to leap. Thankfully, HALLOWS allows for several moments of breathing, and is a superior film for it. One of its best scenes (shockingly!) has no bearing whatsoever on the plot. It’s simply Harry, trying to cheer his friend Hermione by dancing with her to a Nick Cave tune. There’s humor, there’s humanity, there’s (gasp!) even a soupçon of sexual tension. In other words, it’s a moment that made me intrigued by these characters – finally.

DEATHLY HALLOWS benefits not only from a more leisurely approach to plotting, but from a complete change of scenery. Not a single scene is set at Hogwart’s, the school that has served as the setting of every one of the films and books thus far. Instead, this chapter has Harry & Co. on the run in the grey English wilderness – a suitably bleak and foreboding backdrop for the desperate hunt that makes up most of the film’s action. Add to these atmospherics the burbling tension between the three heroes, drawn out over many scenes of making camp and self-doubting, and DEATHLY HALLOWS comes to resemble a proper existential road trip picture, akin to Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, or Stephen Frears’ THE HIT. No shit.

If you prick a wizard, does he not bleed?

Naturally, there are still problems, at least for a non HP-reader. There are still the unpacked logistics of magic, (this wand beats that wand, but not the other wand, duh.) There are still the characters filing into a room in the open as if arriving for role call. “Hi, I’m Bill Weasley, I’m going to factor into the plot soon!” And in the film’s climax, the great John Hurt inexplicably appears, and is hustled away without a single line of dialogue. Apparently we’re meant to recognize his character, and understand why he’s there. I didn’t. But with the promise of Part Two tying up Part One’s loose ends, I found this all pretty acceptable. Maybe it’s because I was drunk, I don’t know. It was Thanksgiving!

But what makes this film the best of the Potter series (behind Cuaron’s) is that when a key character gets killed off – I won’t say which, though aficionados already know – there is a real scene of mourning, an extended beat of palpable pain that (no, impossible!) actually tugged the heartstrings of a non-Pott-head… Yes, I cared. Well done. Now if only Gary Oldman had gotten that kind of respect.


Cinemark Theaters, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.A.

Thursday, November 25, 1:30pm drunken showing


UNSTOPPABLE: Train in Vain?

15 11 2010

They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing, and expecting a different result. By that logic, the new film UNSTOPPABLE is a work of total insanity. And yet, it’s just crazy enough to work, goddammit.

In two years, director Tony Scott has made two locomotive-based action films starring Denzel Washington. After 2009’s pathetic take on THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3, you could be forgiven for doubting his follow-up – hell, I wouldn’t blame you if the stink off that one was still so vivid that you went to see MORNING GLORY this weekend instead of UNSTOPPABLE. But while PELHAM, such a similar film in so many ways, was one of the worst films of 2009, UNSTOPPABLE is, bizarrely, one of the most enjoyable of 2010. Madness! So, what sets the two apart?

The Denzel Washington Monument

Certainly, this looks just like the last one. Scott’s saturated color palette, shuddering slo-mo, and non-stop roving camera have remained consistent for his last 115 movies, or thereabout, since 1995. A man who never met a tracking shot he didn’t like, Scott again sends his lens running laps around yet another high-tech control center. Rosario Dawson and the always-welcome Kevin Corrigan do the headset honors, wringing their hands while Denzel and Chris Pine, a blue collar engineer and conductor, attempt to stop an unstoppable (clap clap) locomotive on course to explode all Southern Pennsylvania… What else? The same guy did the musical scores on both this and PELHAM. The same guy edited both, too… I suppose the difference between Scott’s two consecutive runaway train movies, apart from a merciful absence of Bad Travolta, is that while PELHAM, a remake of a classic, was a film of obnoxious unoriginality, UNSTOPPABLE is a film of admirable unoriginality. It’s a powerful, basic story,  and it’s no less powerful for being totally predictable. Man vs. machine, man wins. The indomitable spirit, and that.

We go to a movie like this, or, I went to a movie like this, to let out some palm sweat, and Tony Scott is a director who knows how to brilliantly build moments of tension. He’s made bad movies and good, but he’s made many of them, more or less, the same. Scott’s applied his signature flourishes with a one-size-fits-all spirit to everything he’s done, and met with widely-varying success – so the quality of any given Tony Scott product, it’s safe to say, rests in the hands of its screenplay. Writer Mark Bomback’s work here is efficient, smartly-structured procedural action, and when the director’s bag of visual tricks run low, which, let’s face it, they did around 2004, UNSTOPPABLE’s characters are sympathetic and recognizable, and its stakes from moment-to-moment are clear and compelling.

The Spielblog 'Sweaty Palm Meter' Gives UNSTOPPABLE a 'Moist.'

As to be expected, there are one too many layers of stylization in UNSTOPPABLE, one too many cutaways to faux news broadcasts, one too many on-screen titles telling us where we are (hint: it’s always Pennsylvania,) one too many identical swooping helicopter shots – a handful of which are actually great. But much of the gilding comes off as unnecessary, as it did in Scott’s uneven/terrific MAN ON FIRE – when his lead actor is really the strongest weapon in this shooter’s arsenal. Whereas Scott does the same thing film after film with mediocre results, his five-time collaborator does the same thing film after film, and he’s always on. In spite of all its action, the best scene of UNSTOPPABLE involves neither a ‘wham’ nor a ‘bam,’ nor even a ‘thank you ma’am.’ It’s just this generation’s most charismatic movie star, in close-up, as he coolly defies his boss over walkie-talkie. It’s electrifying. But to expect otherwise from Denzel Washington would be madness indeed.


Cinemark Theaters, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.A.

Sunday, November 14, 4:35pm showing