Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (David Yates); Unstoppable (Tony Scott); Fair Game (Doug Liman); Giallo (Dario Argento)

Ralph Fiennes, nostrils flaring as he plays He Who Shall Not Be Sniffed At

Deadly boring

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the seventh Potter movie I've seen, and the sixth I've pretty much had to tolerate, checking my watch and trying to guess when this endless marathon of a movie would end.

Not sure which Potter movies I prefer (or dislike less). The first two directed by Chris Columbus are bland kiddie pap, it's true, but the rest--increasingly darker in atmosphere and tone--aren't all that distinctive either. They possess the kind of grimness you find in most graphic novels or in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies--a lust for seriousness, to be taken (or mistaken) for adult fare. This, the filmmakers believe, means a solemn (read: funereal) tone, an escalation of violence, a near-complete absence of wit or humor or jokes.

Does the fault lie with the books themselves? I don't know; haven't read them. I do notice some kind of pattern running through the Potter adaptations: that whenever Potter or his friends come up against insurmountable odds, whenever they are faced with an irresistible opponent (usually He Who Cannot Be Named (but could use serious cosmetic surgery)), what usually happens is either Dumbledore or Hermione figure out some loophole or trinket or magical power tool that they wave around and--poof--everything comes out hunky-dory. This bit of cheating wasn't too offensive the first time around, but this seventh time it has gotten extremely tiresome, not to mention annoying. 

Which may be why filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron chose to do what he chose to do--namely, the third installment of the Potter franchise. The Prisoner of Azkaban felt different because (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film) its bit of deus ex machina came with its own built-in fascination: the spectacle of seeing one's story told a second time, with all the flaws and loopholes and inexplicable moments repaired, filled in, explained along the way. Azkaban could arguably be a meta-commentary on the typical Potter movie, a way of poking fun at Harry's tendency to make it through no matter what the odds, at minimum expense to himself and his loved ones (he uses a time-traveling device, silly!). I'd call it the most narratively complex of the Potter movies, and as such, the most promising for cinematic interpretation (which Cuaron did, brilliantly). Cuaron turned down the chance to do more Potter movies--possibly he knew exactly what he was doing when he did that. He just went on and did more good work, elsewhere.

Then there's the sense of invincible entitlement Potter seems to wear about him all the time. It's prophesied or implied or at least suggested from the first picture onwards that Potter is fated to kill Voldemort and become a great wizard, perhaps the greatest; why, then, should Potter bother studying so hard? Why even show up for classes? Why should he--and we--worry about the encroaching darkness, the machinations of evil? Potter's going to kick their asses anyway--who cares?

It probably doesn't work out that way in the books; possibly it's made clearer that Potter doesn't control his future, that prophesies don't necessarily come true, and that Potter better dig into those books a little harder, because the tests are no cakewalk. In those books, and I'm only guessing here, you get a better sense of what happened in the intervening years, who hooks up with who, how relationships develop (and I don't mean just heavy petting). Humor and the sense that you've gotten to know these characters well are, or so I hear, the chief pleasures of reading the Potter books, and it's probably these elements that are cut out of the movie adaptations.

In Deathly Hallows 1, when the guests arrive at the wedding soon after their harrowing, near-fatal escape (why, I asked, do they throw a wedding after taking so much trouble trying to hide themselves? I know the question is raised and answered in the movie, but I'm not convinced--are you?), I stare frustratedly at one guest after another. Who was that? A pair of twins? I hear they make quite an impression in the books; in the movies I barely remember who they are, much less what kind of people they are. Having watched the last installment a year ago, it's all been a blur, and I'm not about to dip into the Sacred Texts to refresh my memory. Potter looks tired, the movie feels tired, I'm tired. And we have over two more hours of this to wade through? Voldemort help us.


Tony Scott was interesting when he took up interesting material--Deja Vu and Enemy of the State come to mind. Now he's filming braindead stuff that better befits Michael Bay, a huge step backwards.

Scott's style is legendarily assaultive; you don't go to him for subtle, self-effacing filmmaking. When it came to creating an atmosphere of paranoia (Enemy of the People), however, or at least an unsettled time scheme (Deja Vu) that style fitted well. On the other hand a train, runaway or not, goes in only one direction--forward--and the way Scott's camera careens all over the place you aren't sure if the train has stopped or gone off the rails; you aren't even sure if the climax had arrived or if everyone was just taking a cigarette break (Scott films a man smoking in the same bombastic way he films two trains in a head-on collision; the effect is not just numbing, it's downright dull).

Go watch Runaway Train instead--saw it recently, just to see if it holds up, and it does, spectacularly. With a script by Akira Kurosawa, gritty direction by Andrey Konchalovskiy, and a flat-out ferocious performance by Jon Voight as a desperate escaped convict, the picture shows you what a real action film looks and feels like, with something to say about man's role in the world (especially if his position in that world is exceptionally low), and about redemption--the kind paid for in blood and suffering.

By film's end, Konchalovskiy throws a quote from Richard III on the screen: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, therefore am no beast." It is Konchalovskiy's, Kurosawa's, and Voight's achievement that they do full justice to those startling words with this startling, hot-blooded film.

Lest we forget

There are complaints that Doug Liman's Fair Game is merely a rehash of headline news, that it preaches mainly to the converted, that events have long since passed, exceeded and rendered this story irrelevant. I don't quite agree. For one, the film also tells the more personal story behind the headline news, that of Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, and the consequences of what happened when Plame is exposed as an agent--not just career and work, but lives endangered, possibly killed, because an agent was suddenly and maliciously rendered inoperative.

More, the film outlines, in quick and economical strokes, the strain that is put on their marriage. Character is key to this film, and I like the fact--very true, I think--that character dictates someone's course of action, even when their world is falling down around them. Hence, if Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) has been defined all his life by his principled outspokenness, then he reacts by his principles, speaking out loud and clear. If Valerie (Naomi Watts) has been defined by her loyalty to the CIA, then she reacts accordingly. Scorpion and frog, acting according to their natures, in a fateful embrace. 

Liman directs, I believe, with great honesty; he tells the facts, dresses it with as little Hollywood hoo-ha and sensationalism as possible. This is about the quietest mainstream Hollywood drama I can remember, definitely quieter than most, and his actors despite their name brand take their cue from Liman's direction and deliver quietly felt, quietly intense performances.

As for relevance--funny, but I think the scene where Wilson delivers a talk pretty much sums it all: this has been their story, the reason why they did what they did, and the consequences of what they did to their own lives. Then Wilson turns it around and reminds his audience--reminds us, in fact, that now we know the smaller story, ther is a larger story, one that has been lost in the media firestorm that resulted from Plame's unmasking, and that we are victims as well. Nice to be reminded what it's all about, and why we fight the good fight--and still have to, especially today, post-elections.

 Killer good time

It's amazing the kind of negative reviews Dario Argento got for his latest work Giallo (2009). Most consistent complaints point to what they consider to be bad acting, a poor script (Argento didn't write it, though it was written with him in mind) and--worse of all--the largely uninspired killings that tend to cut away when the going gets interesting (read: when matters get bloody beyond belief).

True, true, true. And yet--there's something to be said about the film. Word has it that the producers interfered endlessly, but Argento here also seems to be reaching out for something different, something perhaps less explicit yet as stylish (and I submit this is as stylish as his other films, from the use of various locations around Turin to the subdued (for Argento, that is) yet modulated use of color to the subtly pleasing compositions and bits of editing, the kind found in the work of any real filmmaker). Perhaps Argento knows he cannot always compete with the Eli Roths and Saw filmmakers of this world (not just because of their larger budgets, but because of the law of diminishing returns) and decided to go for baroque (sorry) in terms of emotions, not violence.

And I think it's not just emotionally baroque, but unusually structured--both cop (Adrien Brody) and killer (Byron Diedra) have their flashbacks, both cop and killer have their parallel characteristics and actions (and as a matter of fact, both cop and killer (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie) are played by the same actor--the name of Byron Diedra, who plays Giallo, is an anagram of Adrien Brody.

The clues are uncovered quickly, effortlessly almost; the manhunt, I suspect, isn't Argento's (or the film's, anyway) true priority. This is more of a character study, an examination of a man's life--how obsession can fill that life, take it over, warp it, color it a specific color. Brody, far from chewing scenery here, I submit, is very fine--he's trying to maintain the tricky balancing act of winning your sympathy the same time he gives you the unsettling felling that all is not quite right in the man's life. If the critics don't fully appreciate what Argento's trying to do here, I might suggest that the expectations raised by the director's past work colors their view of his intentions here, perhaps a bit unfairly.

The whole exercise leads up to and climaxes with a single shot: the camera following Brody's officer as he walks away, a woman behind him flinging devastating accusations. The film might be good--perhaps great even, in a cruel way--if it ended there, but it doesn't; for some reason Argento (the producers?) softens the blow with a brief coda, revealing a crucial character's fate. Too bad; the film, like its eponymous villain, lurches on its unhappy way, seeking appreciation from a largely unreceptive public.


Anonymous said...

Boo! You're stupid that's why you didn't enjoy HP7 Part 1. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" lol, can't even spell the title. You know what's deadly boring? Your reviews...

Noel Vera said...

Wow, you can spell.

Clap, clap, clap.

That's something.

doublewalrus said...

Hello Noel! I had the same question too. If their lives were in so much danger and after taking the trouble to try to elude the baddies, why in hell did the Harry-mates decide go to a place where they know they will be easily attacked (more so to a place where the Volder-Mates have gone before?), AND even have the nerve to hold a wedding?

Just like the previous movie, why did I feel that 75% of the movie was padding?

Noel Vera said...

Seventy five percent? Only?

doublewalrus said...

The action sequences were engaging enough that I stopped shoving popcorn in my piehole.

Noel Vera said...

You need to get out more. Or at least see more action sequences.

Anonymous said...

Unless he did another movie I don't know about, the Tony Scott film you must be referring to is called "Enemy Of The State." When in doubt, Google can be your friend.

Noel Vera said...

Uh. Blame me for thinking Ibsen when I should be thinking Scott. I was thinking "How dare he steal from...?" when the movie first came out.


Dennis Yu said...

Just saw the movie for the first time, on DVD. The only thing I agree with in your review is that the films are faithful to the books to a (great) fault. I read the entire series and I didn't like the last book (from which this movie is based) because I felt the story became extremely convoluted. Which is why I thought the film version improved on the book. From my perspective, I liked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a lot. I thought the stately feel to it (i.e., "good taste", "Nolan"esque) worked, much like "The Ice Storm" worked for Ang Lee (though I know you'll disagree with the comparison which I borrowed from you, but it's what came to my mind immediately). It is, after all, a studio production. If it were an indie, it would probably be more....rugged, the characters would do more than kissing, there would be cussing, etc. But I like the movie the way it is :-)

Noel Vera said...

Indie or studio, I'm starting to learn that filmmakers can leave a signature--it depends on who. Have not yet seen part 2, but for me Azkaban is still the best of the lot--mainly because it bears the imprint of its maker.