Archive for July, 2007

Mudbloods and Muggles

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is currently the best of 2007’s ‘Ultimate Summer’ movies (I haven’t seen Transformers or The Simpsons Movie yet, but I understand the former to be a loud mess, and the latter an extended TV episode, which could either be very good – the early, Springfield-centred seasons – or very poor – the ones where the Simpsons somehow end up in another country, or rely on random special guest stars). This is by default, but I couldn’t take away from the franchise its increasing confidence and the subtle weaving in of more adult themes. Younger viewers won’t mind this - they care enough about the characters by now to enjoy visiting them once more. For the rest of us, the sheer entertainment value on offer, coupled with the identifiable allegories underpinning the series, make it a riveting two hours.

Much has been made about the fact that the longest book in the massive Harry Potter sequence has churned out the shortest movie. Mine wife, a big Potterphile, decries the absence of certain elements from the page - the missing Weasley siblings, Harry’s choice to invest his winning from the Tri-Wizard Tournament (from The Goblet of Fire), the long passages that leave the reader in little doubt that this is a confused and angry hero in the throes of hormonal development. As far as I’m concerned, the editing is a blessing, and it’s something the books could have done with. The tomes written by JK Rowling since parts one to three smack of indulgence, and the absence of someone willing to make sweeping chops to the fat text. It’s in the most recent instalments that we have seen what a mechanical author Rowling is. The writing isn’t brilliant. Rarely does it come to life, though she remains an accomplished enough storyteller to retain enough mystery leading up to the final chapter.

In the adaptation, the cuts work. Shorn of its page padding excesses, OOTP has a real sense of vitality, and at times breathlessness. Like all good bridging yarns (it’s the first to finish without a proper climax) the film builds a degree of claustrophobia, leaving its heroes trapped in the face of rising evil and authority figures who won’t do a thing to stop it. Leading steadily to a quite amazing last act, the movie is knowing enough to contain some humour, several child-friendly elements and a villain who seems to have based her turn on the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, perhaps concealing a copy of The Prince inside her Thatcherite suits.

Now with added Oldman!OOTP opens in Little Whingeing, with Harry cut off from his wizard chums. Forced once more to live with his tyrannical relations, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths, looking frankly enormous) and Aunt Petunia, we find him sitting alone on a swing, raging against the world. Cousin Dudley shows up, looking comically chavish and nursing his reputation as a school bully. A chance and terrifying encounter with two Dementors leads Harry straight into trouble, possible expulsion from Hogwarts, and increased alienation from his allies. As the school is taken over by Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, perfectly cast), a woman with a heart of stone who starts transforming the place into Nazi Germany, Harry and his mates form Dumbledore’s Army, a clique of students who brush up on their spell casting powers in secret. They need them. Eventually, the group find themselves in the Ministry of Magic, duelling with Death Eaters (baddies who follow Voldemort) and the Dark Lord himself.

The movie tells its story at a frantic pace, rarely letting up for slower moments, and that’s a good thing. At no point was I musing over the preposterousness of it all. Only once did the CGI look in any way less than brilliant, which was the moment when Hagrid’s brother – a green-skinned giant – popped up. This simple character is one of the few concessions to children. For the most part, things in OOTP are grim, and dark. So very dark, in fact, which is a suitable point to mention the standout performance by Gary Oldman, who turns up once again as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. The sheer wealth of British acting talent on display – sometimes wasted in tiny cameos – makes these films ever an event, but Staunton aside, Oldman is about the best thing on display, and manages to bring his personal issues to the surface in a movie short on character expansion. On the negative side, there isn’t enough Alan Rickman. Snape is my favourite character in the books, a creepy figure with a wealth of backstory whose motivations are never clear – you have to read to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to find out where he was coming from all along. In the film, he’s barely present, though a nice episode from his past adds neat extra layers, which will matter when they get round to making Half-Blood Prince.

David Yates – whose best known work previously was the marvellous State of Play – turns in a well directed piece. Not as visually stunning as Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban, Yates nevertheless does well with what he has, keeping the pace just the right side of bearable, as darkness creeps into the lives of our heroes. Cleverly, Voldemort is hardly involved, and his presence is reduced to a rumbling undercurrent of menace. However, when Ralph Fiennes sans nose does show, he’s worth every vicious second of time on the screen. His Dark Lord is psychotic and brilliant, unstoppable on barely any level. Against him, Daniel Radcliffe is growing in maturity in the thankless role of a reluctant hero, Rupert Grint is a reliable comic relief, even though he’s shorn of some of his best scenes in the book, and Emily Watson still seems to be on the wooden side. I’d like to have seen more of the endlessly entertaining Weasley twins, though they do feature in a very good moment of ‘revenge,’ and Evanna Lynch shines in the part of Luna Lovegood.

More than anything, OOTP gives me hope for the future of this series. After two commercially aware but dramatically flat opening episodes, the people behind the Harry Potter franchise appear to be taking their jobs seriously, employing some fine directors who have added their own touches of quality to the material. The best remains The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was saddled with a less convoluted plot and an ending that contained real bravura, but this isn’t bad. Better than The Chronicles of Narnia, with His Golden Materials to come, and not a patch on The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter is finding a place in the movie world. I’m already looking forward to The Half-Blood Prince.

Posted on 30th July 2007
Under: Recent Releases | No Comments »

Thief! Warrior! Gladiator! King! Arnie!

Trawling the sales the other day, I picked up the two-disc special collector’s ultimate, etc, edition of Conan the Barbarian for under three quid. I haven’t seen the movie since I was a child, and yes back then it was probably via the dubious charms of a Betamax top-loader.

What I remember about it is vague, and in fragments. I can certainly recall mine father moaning about ‘stretching the boundaries of fantasy’ when James Earl Jones turns into a snake, and the bit where a young Conan is forced to spend his days pushing a giant wheel, until the years pass, the boy has become an adult and he’s worn a groove into the ground beneath him. The reason for not watching it since then probably has less to do with the movie itself than the succession of cheaply made bobbins that followed, or came out at around the same time. The BeastmasterKrullThe Sword and the flipping Sorceror… Some critics might have it that there’s a certain charm to these flicks. I think they’re generally awful, and that goes for the rather perfunctory sequel to ‘the Barbarian’ and Red Sonja, which inflicted 90 minutes of Brigitte Nielsen onto  an unsuspecting world.

However, the original Conan film, now celebrating its 25th year of existence, deserves to be elevated above the detritus. I enjoyed seeing it again, though the plot is rather silly and incredibly a fresh-faced Arnold Schwarzenegger is by no means the worst actor on display. Sure, the effects might have dated a little, but these aren’t as appalling as you might imagine, thanks partly to a large budget, and also because the use of pre-CGI animation is kept to a grateful minimum. In general, John Milius and his team get Conan about right, feed him just enough story to keep the focus squarely on his bare torsoed fighting ability, and place him in a setting that genuinely evokes an ancient and lost civilisation.

Conan - I bet he looks good on the dancefloorThe first obvious reason for the film’s success is the hulking presence of its star. In his first major Hollywood role, Schwarzenegger was still largely unknown outside bodybuilding circles and looks perfect as the massive Conan. By all accounts, he told the director that he had no interest in adding to the part, and was happy to be told what to do at all times, leading to a character free of idiosyncrasy and a star’s vanity. Conan doesn’t say much. Nor does he have to – the sword does his speaking for him – as the big man is surrounded by some venerable voice actors. What matters is his highly developed physique. I can’t think of a better instance of casting for Schwarzenegger, apart from when he took the part of the Terminator. He’s made for Conan, and it’s not surprise that in physical representations since, the barbarian has been copied loosely from the Austrian’s example.

In 1982, everyone knew James Earl Jones best for providing the solemn tones of one Lord Darth Vader. Yet Jones – here saddled with one of the more ridiculous hairstyles seen in moviedom – is equalled by Mako, who adds to his performance as a cheap magician with the role of narrator. Given the job of introducing the legend of Conan and wrapping up his adventure, Mako’s larger than life voice work is spot on. As for Darth, he has both the build and the vocals to fit the character of Thulsa Doom, the film’s main baddie. When addressing a crowd of followers, he’s impressive enough to provide a commanding presence, and even has two vicious henchmen to do his dirty work.

The script for Conan doesn’t contain welters of dialogue, and it’s music that fills the gaps. Basil Poledouris provides a score that is both epic in tone, and evokes a world lost to the passage of time. Heavy on horns and drums, the music is belted out, and helps to give the film its mythical tone. Also worthy of note is the gorgeous choreography, thoughtful costumes and the majority of the design work, which gives everything a sense of location. The village of Conan’s childhood looks every inch a peasants’ hamlet, all thatched roofs huddled against the snow. The ancient throne room into which your man falls looks amazing, the skeleton king adorned in finery that has long since fallen to decay and cobwebs. Our hero’s last stand, which takes place in a ruined temple of standing stones, is just like the sort of long abandoned sacred place you might find on the island of Gozo, whilst the lair of Thulsa Doom has a distinct Eastern influence.

All of which said, it isn’t brilliant, and you can see why the fantasy genre went into decline until Peter Jackson showed an interest in Tolkein. For a start, the acting is uniformly horrible. This doesn’t matter so much in the case of Arnie, who doesn’t have to do a great deal other than appear impressive when swinging a broadsword. His love interest, played by Sandahl Bergman, might look the part, but has to provide the acting muscle and doesn’t measure up. The same goes for Gerry Lopez, who seems to hide every facial expression under his Scouse moustache. As a story, Conan moves ponderously. Sometimes, when the camera is admiring the wild vistas or lingering over the barbarian’s chiselled pectorals, you can almost forgive it for liking what it sees. But this happens far too often, slows down the action and demonstrates there probably isn’t enough narrative to sustain the running time. Perhaps it’s all down to the script, written in part by Oliver Stone. Not known for his sense of jolly humour, Stone’s screenplay takes its subject a little too seriously, almost reverentially in fact, giving us a silly scenario that is played absolutely straight. There are moments of fun, such as the infamous camel punching sequence (the camel goes down obligingly), but these are few and far between. Even Mako’s character – intended to be the comic relief – isn’t all that funny, and let’s be honest watching a movie like Conan that doesn’t know how to laugh at itself is always going to be a bit of a trawl.

But somehow, these problems can be overlooked as the film’s visual virtuosity shines through. At its heart is an actor who would in time become one of Hollywood’s biggest players. Watching him as Conan, it isn’t easy to see Schwarzenegger turning out to be so huge over the following two decades, but his natural charisma and the ability to look good in naught but fur-lined underpants is clear enough.

Posted on 11th July 2007
Under: Epics | 4 Comments »

I couldn’t wait for it to be Ogre

This review contains spoilers.

Oh dear. It hasn’t been a good summer for the threequels. Spider-Man 3 was a massive letdown. The critics slammed their cutlass into the third instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean, though oddly enough I quite enjoyed it, possibly because I wasn’t expecting much. And then there’s Shrek the Third, surely as safe a franchise as they come. How do you possibly get something like this wrong? A minimal plot, funny characters, a peppering of pop culture references and slices of comedy that can appeal to both kids and adults. It’s positively foolproof, right?

I went to see it with mine family, largely through boredom. The English weather has been like one long expulsion of snot recently, and even worse if you live in the north west. The alternative was to watch the men’s final at Wimbledon, and quite honestly the prospect of seeing SW19 bathed in blazing sunshine - well, dryness, at any rate - whilst we Lancastrians have to put up with endless rain did not appeal. So Shrek it was, and we took our seats in the Rochdale Odeon with numerous other family units who clearly arrived with exactly the same ‘must go outside somewhere… anywhere’ stir crazy mentality as ourselves.

'Please boss, get me out of this crap!'Though tales of horrific, disturbance-filled trips to the pictures are commonplace, I’ve not had it too bad recently. This was different. My time was spent getting up to let other people out who needed the toilet, listening to patrons talking and shouting throughout the feature, and finding the floor to be coated in someone else’s chewing gum. And that was the entertaining part. The film itself was awful, terribly dull, with few flashes of the humour that punctuated its prequels, and containing little crossover material so that sections of the action alienated grown ups, whilst large swathes left the children twiddling their thumbs.

As I mentioned somewhere above, it should be hard to mess up the sheer wealth of entertainment potential that comes with the Shrek package. The producers have thousands of years of fairy tales and folk legends from which to cull material, blended in with countless modern day references. They can even leave the plot to one side, favouring gags over narrative development, and it still works. As it happens, I saw the original Shrek movie the other evening, and found myself once more chuckling over the Du Loc information point scene, the nods to Lord Farquaad’s compensating, and the banter between Shrek and Donkey. Not all of it worked, but mostly it sizzled with good fun and a sense it wasn’t taking itself seriously for a second.

Clearly, the Third is a Shrek too far. To begin with, there’s an overriding feeling that nobody is trying very hard. Mike Myers doesn’t sound especially Scottish in the eponymous lead role. The scene stealer from Shrek 2, Antonio Banderas, sounds bored, and Eddie Murphy is criminally underused as Donkey. With so many characters occupying the stage by this point, there’s less time to enjoy the Shrek-Donkey interchanges, which were utterly delightful previously. Even worse, a plot development sees the ass switch bodies with Puss in Boots, and so little is made of this beyond a few cheap gags that there appears to be very little point to it all.

The story concerns Prince Charming’s attempt to regain the throne of Far, Far Away, whilst Shrek goes on a voyage to find the true heir, Artie (or Arthur Pendragon, in yet another reference to mythology that is barely tapped beyond the obvious name recognition). Along the way, our hero finds out he’s going to be a father, which leads him to question his ability to fulfil the paternal role. This includes an admittedly humourous dream sequence that owes more than a little to Rosemary’s Baby, but otherwise who cares? What are younger viewers going to make of the ‘doubting’ scenes, apart from bored requests to use to cinema’s WC? Also, it’s never made clear why Shrek wouldn’t see himself as anything other than a wonderful dad. Presumably, these bits are inserted to provide a framework of familiarity for fathers in the audience to empathise with, yet they don’t make a lot of sense. The ogre is still crazy about Fiona, and has maintained a paternal role with Donkey since the first movie, so why wouldn’t he be overjoyed?

'I'm stuck in this stinker, and so are you!'Rupert Everett, always sound casting, voices Prince Charming with reliable oiliness, yet he can’t save his character’s narrative arc. In an early scene, PC goes off to recruit some classic fairy tale villains - Captain Hook, Rumpelstiltskin, etc - in his quest to storm Far Far Away. Cornered by a resentful gang of pantomime baddies, in less than two minutes he’s gone from having his throat nearly slit to leading them to rebellion - how? As a leader, he’s the worst example of puff pastry, yet sure enough he takes the castle and installs himself as king, all in what looks like a feeble attempt to improve his lot on stage. The character is so shabbily drawn that it’s a relief his end comes fairly quickly, cueing the time honoured musical finale.

With Charming on the throne, Fiona and her fairy tale ladies of the court - Snow White, Cinderella, et al - lead an underground resistance movement. Again, how they manage this doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, Snow White can sing a number of woodland animals into overcoming the castle guards. Cinderella takes to scrubbing the prison floor once she’s captured. Rapunzel, er, falls asleep a lot.

I don’t want to make out that a pastiche like Shrek the Third needs to be logical, but too often it undermines its own rules by introducing entirely new elements that clash with what we know, simply in an attempt to provoke easy laughs, or shuffle the plot along. Queen Lillian can headbutt through walls - why? Merlin has turned away from magic to promote alternative therapies - again why, and how will this entertain children? On top of everything, there’s not a lot of point to Artie. He goes from being the school dropkick (incidentally, the school’s called Worcestershire - is this some incredibly subliminal joke, or was it chosen just because it sounds English?) to delivering an inspirational speech that seals his place as king, without it ever being explained why he is capable of doing such a thing. Not funny, and not terribly interesting either, he’s a terrible new character for the franchise. Justin Timberlake provides the vocal ‘talents’ - I enjoyed him in Black Snake Moan, but the anti-pretty boy critics will have their brickbats ready following this moribund turn.

There are some funny moments in the movie - John Cleese’s dying speech works well, as does the diehard gag where a foghorn masks bad language - but these are too few and far between. I haven’t been as flatly disappointed by an animated feature since the execrable Shark Tale, which just like this played like a cynical attempt to part cinemagoers from their cash. Amazingly in a ‘U’ feature, the majority of jokes are aimed at adults, leaving the knockabout slapstick and musical montages to its alleged intended audience.

Not that any of these comments matter. Shrek the Third took over $121m in its opening weekend, which makes a fourth instalment - slated for 2010 - inevitable. Judging from the way this one ended, the next episode will be all about Shrek’s experiences as a daddy. If I’m lucky, by then my son won’t want to go to the cinema with his parents anymore.

Posted on 8th July 2007
Under: Animation, Comedy, Bobbins, Recent Releases | 1 Comment »

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