Saturday, 30 July 2011

I Solemnly Swear That I am Up to No Good: "Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban"

I have an interesting viewing relationship with Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third entry in the now complete 8 Harry Potter film franchise. The first two Chris Columbus directed Potter films were close to my heart so it was quite jarring to see the new visual and tonal approach brought to the series by director Alfonso Cuaron, who had directed the critically acclaimed Y Tu Mama Tambien. There was also the feeling the film was much smaller than the first two films, both in scale and in length; Prisoner of Azkaban ends just as the previous two were getting in to their final acts. I enjoyed the film but as I said, it was jarring. As time went on I realized how much critics liked to use the third film to bash Chris Columbus' first two as being too faithfiul, too uncinematic, and not very magical. While I understand the criticisms and they certaintley have some validity to them, they made me slightly mad against the third film. Ironically enough, the film I was the most jarred by when seeing it for the first time has now become my favourite film in the series. This is a beautifully visualized, extremely poignant, and ultimately very nimble and brisk film that works as a stand alone entry while adding to the Harry Potter mythos.

The plot of the film deals with the now 13 year old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), entering his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy with his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson). After blowing up his visiting Aunt Marge to a human balloon, in what is probably the best opener of the series, Harry gets a ride on the Knight Bus, a multiple decker purple bus invisible to muggles (non magic folk). Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a known murderer and supporter of Lord Voldemort, has escaped from Azkaban prison.

This film, like most of the Harry Potter books and films, is essentially a mystery. Nevertheless, while the first two films seemed more plot driven, this film seems more character driven. Certainly the main trio is the central relationship of this series and we see subtle hints of Ron and Hermione's eventual romance as well as Hermoine's ingenuity involving a time turner; though Ron and Hermione are important to the film, I they are slightly in the background for this chapter, particularly Ron. This is understandable because the heart of this film is the relationship between Harry and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewliss), who helps Harry defend himself against dementors, the guards of Azkaban who are after Sirius Black but who affect anyone who gets in their way by feeding off a person's happiness. They affect Harry most of all because as Lupin tells him, his horrible childhood makes him more vulnerable to their power.

 Lupin not only helps Harry defend himself, he also shares his relationship with Harry's late parents, James and Lilly. The scene between Lupin and Harry on a bridge, which I believe is done in one shot, where Lupin tells Harry about Lily helping him during dark times, and James' knack for trouble, like Harry himself, and Harry can only smile, is one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the entire series. It captures how Harry, despite never knowing his parents, can still find joy in hearing about them, being reminded they did live and have friends such as Lupin. This is further emphasized in the scene where Harry has to conjure up a happy memory to protect himself against a dementor and he picks a memory of his parents just talking to him. He doesn't know if it's real but as Harry says, it's the best he's got. This observation is both emotionally uplifting because, as I mentioned earlier, the thought of his parents can still bring him joy, but also quite sad because he doesn't even know if it's a real experience. Sometimes the most powerful memories and emotions we have come from our own minds.

Lupin of course is not the only father figure in this film. Harry learns that Sirius is his godfather and is lead to believe he betrayed his parents, Sirius' friends, to Voldemort. By the end though, Harry realizes Sirius was framed and escaped from Azkaban to kill the real traitor, Peter Pettrigrew (Timothy Spall), who has disguised as Ron's rat Scabbers. While Harry and Sirius don't have a lot of screen time, like Harry's scenes with Lupin, they provide a genuine emotional poignance to the dazzling wizardy and capture Harry's yearning for a sense of family, an important thematic thread through all the novels.

The film is beautifully visualized and I think that's saying something considering the visual wonder of this universe. While Columbus brought a lot of charm and whimsy to the first two films, he didn't bring much visual style to the proceedings, which is not a knock, just an observation. Cuaron is more of a visual stylist than Columbus and one of the joys of this film is seeing how wonderfully he stages many pivotal and smaller moments in the film. The scene where the dementors come on the Hogwarts Express is one the scariest sequences in the entire series and is a good example of how this film, moreso than even Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, plays almost like a horror film. The scene where Mr. Weasley warns Harry of Sirius being after Harry, is another good example of a horror film aesthetics. Mr. Weasley talks to Harry in the shadows of The Leaky Cauldron pub, with wanted posters of Sirius on the walls, and John Williams' score creeps in ever so slightly. This scene between the two manages both to be creepy and fun. I also like the old school iris in/out effect Cuaron uses to begin and end scenes. The Quidditch scene, taking place in the rain, is thrillingly staged and I love how we're shoved in to the action without any lead up. Unfortunately, it almost seems like Cuaron made himself the star of the film, or at least critics made him the star. Still, while Cuaron indulges in the visual element of the film, I don't feel he is a self indulgent director; I also remember an interview with Cuaron where he disagreed with a critic who said this film was the first to capture the spirit of the books.

Acting wise, by this time in the franchise the three main actors had really grown in to their roles. Radcliffe handles the emotional moments between him and Lupin very well. Watson captures the lovable know-it-all that Hermione is and Grint nails Ron's throwaway comedic moments, such as his nightmare about spiders making him tap dance. It's funny to hear about hard it was to direct them in the first two films and even Radcliffe admits what he was doing in the first film wasn't really acting. I've always liked these three young actors, I've grown up with them over the last decade. The older cast members, as always, deliver great support. Alan Rickman is hilariously creepy as Professor Snape and Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, is both whimsical and grounded. Thewliss is naturally sympathetic and likable as Lupin, providing a sense of comfort amongst the darker elements of the film and Oldman conveys the pain and madness of a innocent man being wrongly convicted while slowly revealing a good natured man who cares for his god son. It's just unfortunate that there wasn't more screentime between him and Harry, though the moments they have are quite touching.

The biggest problem for me with this movie is the way in which is plotted. I feel like there's not a proper climax or at least we're shoved in to the climax without any lead up. Then there's the issue of Hermione's time turner. It's a cool plot device and it's delightful to watch all the little things that happened during the "first go around" come together when Harry and Hermione go back in time. I think the problem with the time turner is it's somewhat of a deus ex machina. While it's hinted at throughout the film, it seems too convienent and I don't believe it's ever brought up in the books again and certainly not the films.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is another part of the puzzle in this series and there's an intimacy which befits it's nature as one piece of a larger series rather than something which feels too epic but doesn't go anywhere. Looking at the films which followed Cuaron's entry one can see how influential his style was on the series, both visually and tonally. Nevertheless, Cuaron's film is one of a kind. This is a wonderful and yes, magical film.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Scorsese in the Aughts: The Departed (2006)

When Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was released in 2006, there were a few claims about the film being the director’s best since Goodfellas. Critic and blogger Jim Emerson found these claims condescending and believing they suggested Scorsese should stick to making gangster pictures. It’s understandable why Emerson found these claims condescending, particularly when one considers the elegance of The Age of Innocence, or the unique scale for a biopic one can find in a film like The Aviator. On the under hand, I can believe these claims that The Departed was Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas come from the fact that The Departed was arguably his most fun and entertaining since that landmark gangster picture. I’ve read how Gangs of New York and The Aviator have been described as too much like “Oscar bait,” and I’m pretty sure The Age of Innocence has received those criticisms as well. To my memory Cape Fear felt a little too overdone and Casino, his previous gangster picture before The Departed, has been criticized for being too much like Goodfellas. I haven’t seen Kundan or Bringing Out The Dead but I feel those films has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years. The Departed was of course the film which won Scorsese his long overdue Best Director Oscar for this film so in a way he does have to live up to something like Goodfellas or his other great films. Regardless of where one puts the film in the Scorsese canon, there’s something really fascinating to me. It is a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and its takes that film’s plot and places it so firmly in an American context, it becomes it own entity, a Shakespearean tragedy mixed that’s also a dark and eccentric comedy.
We deal in deception here, what we don’t deal with is self deception.
This line, spoken early on in The Departed by Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen), encapsulates the irony at the heart of the film, which is that the deceptions by Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cop who goes undercover in the mob, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), mob boss Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) mole in the Boston State Police, are forms of self deception. To live an undercover life is essentially to trick yourself in to believing you’re someone else, even if you don’t mean to. When Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) says to Billy later on in the movie how people practice self deception every day, it does hit home how similar we are to the two men, Billy and Colin. Of course, Billy tells Dignam how he’s “not them, alright. I’m not fucking them,” underlining how he is denying how he has been deceptive his own life. In the beginning of the film we learn how Billy, in his early life, would switch from living a middleclass life to living in the projects. Moreover, he has connections to organized crime yet nevertheless has become a state trooper. From this scene between Billy, Queenan and Dignam, we know Billy’s sense of identity is already a complex one.  Billy is also unaware how when he says he’s not like other people, he’s denying how similar he is to Colin, his counterpart in the police department, whom he learns about in the very scene where Billy denies his similarity to other people.
Colin seems more comfortable with dual identity and I think this is a result of how quickly he raises in the ranks of the police department, how he starts dating police psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), and ultimately how cozy his life as an police officer is to Billy’s life in the mob, witnessing violent acts at the hands of Costello and his associate Mr. French (Ray Winstone). What’s also ironic about the film is how much more Billy knows about mob life than Colin does. The opening of the film shows Costello recruiting a young Colin Sullivan, prepping him to eventually becoming a mole within the police. Colin is the perfect mole because he was seduced early on, being prepared his whole life. I also think Colin is the perfect mole because he never seems like a mobster. Costello most likely never wanted Colin to be part of his crew. He wanted Colin to have a clean slate.
Madolyn is also a character who has a deceptive quality to her. When Billy starts going to see her he even asks her if she is a liar. When she responds with “Honesty is synonymous with truth,” he laughs and tells her, “You lie.” Madolyn’s response has an interesting contradiction to it, which underlines how even if Billy and Colin came clean about their real identities, it still wouldn’t get at the truth about who they are as men. Madolyn’s response, relating to her, also suggests that she does have to lie occasionally in her profession and this response is her rationalization. Her deception also comes through when she does make love to Billy while still with Colin. There’s also the tell-tale line, “I thought I was the liar,” which she says to Colin when she finds out about his dual life, suggesting she lied about her to be born baby being Colin’s.  While Vera Farmiga is kept slightly on the sidelines during the film, she does lend authority to the role of Madolyn, making her feel lived in as a character.
DiCaprio and Damon, while only sharing screen time near the end of the film, create fascinating mirror image performances. I feel DiCaprio really conveys the anxiety and vulnerability of his dual identity. We think of Damon as a nice guy kind of actor but here he plays slimy very well, as well as using his likability to convince us this man could trick others, as well as himself, that he was an all-American boy. I like Jack Nicholson as Costello although at times his performance seems to exist outside of the fabric of the film. My favourite scene with him is with DiCaprio when Billy is trying to convince Costello he’s not the rat inside Costello’s crew. I would have liked to have Robert De Niro tackle this role though I understand it may not have exactly suited him. If they still wanted a flamboyant gangster type than maybe Al Pacino, though I think this is a matter of taste since I’m more of a De Niro and Pacino fan than a Nicholson fan.  I think Whalberg may be the standout. Supposedly Ray Liotta and Denis Leary were considered for Dignam. These two actors are considerably older than Wahlberg and while I can see both actors in the role, Whalberg really inhabits the role from his first moments on screen. When he interrogates Billy he is both funny yet the type of person you know is all about antagonism and intimidation.
Scorsese hold back visually for this film, letting the plot breath. Nevertheless, in the editing of scenes, which as David Bordwell and Emerson have pointed out, have continuity issues, and choice of music one still senses Scorsese’s touch. I like the moment when we see a point of view shot of someone about to have a picture of Jesus Christ smashed over his head. Keeping Costello in the shadows at the beginning of the film is also a nice touch, suggesting a cloud of darkness he walks around in. Scorsese has said The Departed is his first film with a plot and while it can be argued his other films do have plots, certainly The Departed is very plot driven and has many “twists and turns.” Fortunately, while it is quite plot driven, I still felt the film was able to be about its plot, which is very fascinating, while still being about the characters and the little details about them and their world. For instance, the banter between Dignam and Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) and Ellerby’s scenes with Colin have an eccentricity to them, it’s almost shocking to see when and how they appear in the flow of the dialogue.   
The ending of The Departed may come as a bit of a cheat to some viewers, particularly on first viewing but I believe the sudden brutality, the swiftness in which its characters are eliminated plays brilliantly like a dark comedic take on Shakespearean tragedy, which is not to say there’s no dramatic impact to the ending, particularly Billy’s death, which is a shot, no pun intended, that’ll always stay with me. Ultimately it’s understandable how all the plot mechanics have come to this. The film is about finding one mole within the mob and the police yet Billy’s downfall comes from the fact there was a second mole in the police, Barrigan (James Badge Dale). When Colin eliminates Barrigan, he feels he is free from his dual identity yet Madolyn rejects him at Billy’s funeral, Third Man style, and Dignam kills him in his own apartment.  If there’s something deflating about everything being resolved so quickly, that’s the intention. However complex our lives and the various plots within them, they can be cut short before any kind of satisfaction.

X-Men First Class Review

X-Men: First Class balances the light and the dark, the humour and heartbreak, as well as the tragedy and the giddiness present in that tragedy as we see everything we know about this universe fall in place. Director Matthew Vaughan, who was to direct the third X-Men film before Brett Ratner got the job, finally has a chance to not only direct a film in the franchise but to basically recharge the franchise after many fans felt burned after the last two films, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine                          

While this film may be taken more as a prequel to the first two Bryan Singer films rather than a complete reboot, or preboot, as with films such as Martin Campbell’s James Bond film Casino Royale and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, mostly everything about X-Men First Class feels fresh; it’s no longer so Wolverine centric, though I love Hugh Jackman as the character, it’s more developed in terms of its characters and story than the last two films, and Kevin Bacon, though a surprising casting choice, proves satisfyingly sinister as Sebastian Shaw,  the creator of the man, the mutant, who will eventually become Magneto. In this film Magento, played by Ian McKellen in the X-Men trilogy, is still Erik Lensherr, a holocaust survivor who is out revenge against Shaw for the crimes he committed against Erik in the name of perfecting Erik’s power; powers which ironically are used brutally against Shaw, a mutant himself, near the end of the film. As played by Michael Fassbender, this is arguably the most sympathetic and compelling Magneto we’ve seen on screen thus far, with all due respect to McKellen. I think this is due to the film essentially being X-Men Origins: Magneto even more than being a straight X-Men film, though the film is still essentially about the emergence of the X-Men, and certainly has an ending that is a set-up for future X-Men films that will probably explore of the team and their struggles. 

The film is also not only about Erik’s journey to becoming Magneto but also about how his journey destroys his relationship with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). When McAvoy was first cast as Xavier I was surprised at the choice. When I finally saw the film I really enjoyed his performance, understanding how this was not the completely saint-like Professor Xavier as played by Patrick Stewart. This Xavier is a little cockier, more of a ladies’ man, as well as man still not confined to his wheelchair, which is another example of why the film feels fresh. We get to see a Xavier who moves around and even becomes an action hero of sorts.  It also adds to the tragedy of the film to see such an energetic character become wheelchair bound.  I really liked the chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender and even though I wished there were a few more scenes between them, both actors are so good in their individual scenes and with each other, conveying the blossoming bromance between Charles and Erik, particularly in a “use the force Luke” scene when Charles encourages Erik to move a satellite disk, that their eventual breaking apart is saddening. Coming back to my wanting more scenes between the two of them, there’s also the fact what we are saying is a friendship which has been cut short just when it is getting started. 

The X-Men movies always suffer a bit from having too many characters to properly develop them all but I think this film, aside from just having a lot of characters, also manages to be character driven. The character driven aspect comes a lot from Charles and Erik’s relationship, but there’s also the surprising inclusion of a relationship between Charles and Raven, who we know from the original trilogy as Mystique, one of Magneto’s brotherhood. I was surprised by her role here as Charles’ spiritual sister and was glad that we got to see a different, softer side to Mystique, including her potential romance with Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who later becomes Beast after injecting himself with a cure to mask his huge feet. I would have liked a little bit more between Charles and CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), since I believe Moira was Charles’s first love in the comics. I did like their few moments together though, particularly at the end when she actually coins the term “X-Men,” based on his last name. Good thing she didn’t go with his first name for the moniker.

A few things I didn’t like about the movie have to do with the character of Shaw. I like Bacon’s performance, as I said earlier but I didn’t like how he was virtually indestructible. This became a problem for me when Shaw and Azaziel attacked the CIA compound where the young mutants Charles and Erik recruited are hanging out. While the scene is well staged, I think I’ve seen too many scenes in too many films where a villain or villains can just defeat everyone in front of them without a fight. Also, as others have pointed out, there’s something odd about a franchise which is a civil rights allegory to kill off the token black character, in this case, Darwin. Angel betraying the group so fast also doesn’t quite work even though we haven’t learned enough about her to say she wouldn’t betray the group. 

Returning to Shaw, while I liked how the Cuban Missile Crisis played in to his plan, his plan itself was a little too a-typical James Bond villain plot, though I understand that Vaughan has said it interviews he was inspired by the Bond franchise when doing this film, which is fine by me since I’m a huge Bond fan. Many have said Fassbender could be James Bond in a future film and I agree. When we see him hunting Nazis early in the film, he has that eloquent ruthlessness which is needed for Bond, as well as being a fine looking man.  I would have liked a little more of the James Bond element injected in to the film but along with Christopher Nolan’s aforementioned The Dark Knight, which aside from being a superhero film was also a crime epic, X-Men: First Class does a good job of adding an extra layer of genre to a superhero film.    

X-Men: First Class is the second longest X-Men film next to X2: X-Men United (2003), and I feel it’s the best in the series since that superb sequel. Like X2, X-Men: First Class has the proper scale and running time for an X-Men film. From what I’ve heard, Vaughan didn’t have long to make this film. After Bryan Singer dropped out but remained as a producer, Vaughan was brought on in May 2010, only having a year to make the film. Hopefully if a sequel is green lit Vaughan and his contributors on this film will have more time to work on the story and script with other writers, which isn’t to say the story and script are bad here; just that as with the first two X-Men films, one can see how much leeway Singer got with the second film, and was able to give us a fully realized vision of his X-Men universe. Vaughan strikes me as a director with a vision and while this film does contain touches which do belong to him, I think a sequel will allow his complete vision of the X-Men universe to be seen.   

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Films of Terrence Malick: "Days of Heaven"

It's a little unoriginal to say that Days of Heaven is one of the most gorgeously photographed films of all time but it's nevertheless as true a statement as one will find in cinema history. There are images here which just rape you with their beauty, which I know is an unpleasant image but there you go. Certainly, there will be shrugs of "so what" by some people if the quality of the film is attributed to the look of it. I would say the "so what" lies entirely within the images Malick presents us. By creating such rich and lush visuals, Malick is able to immerse the audience inside the world of the characters and the American culture of the early 1900s.

The film centers on the character of Bill (Richard Gere), who after killing his boss at a steel mill, flees with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz), and go to work on a farm run by a character only known as the farmer (Sam Sheperd), Bill and Abby pretending to be brother and sister. The farmer, who is informed that he is dying, falls in love with Abby. Bill comes up with a plan to have Abby marry the farmer and inherit his money when he dies. The farmer's health stabilizes, which ruins the plan. There's also the sense that a real romance has occurred between Abby and the farmer. As with many things in Malick's films,this is not said out loud but strongly implied through specific images such as a snow ride between the farmer and Abby. 

Like all of Malick's films, there is a voiceover narration, the type of narration which is less about describing what's going on screen than it's about itself and the person who is talking. Like Malick's first film Badlands (1973), there is a singular narrator, which in this case is Linda. Like Sissy Spacek/Holly in Badlands, the narration here hasn't become the heavily philosophical, hushed voice narration of his later films. Like Holly's narration in Badlands, the narration is about how Linda views the events of the film rather than about getting at something philosophical, though as I mentioned in my Badlands review, critic Jim Emerson feels that when Linda is talking about mundane things, what she says is more meaningful than when she is trying to be profound.

It is frequently noted how the film can be viewed as Linda's interpretation of events rather than what exactly happened. Malick's films do have a highly impressionistic quality to them, particularly from this point on in his career and in a way, we have to take Linda and Malick's version of the story as the same. This is to say that Malick himself is filling in the blanks,stripping things down, as Slate Magazine's Nick Schager says, to "their bare, poignant essentials." I think Malick does this is in order to make things both more immediate and mysterious. As Malick fills in the blanks, so do we with our own personal experiences, which can be seen as why characterization and plot are so sparse; Malick wants us to bring a lot of ourselves to the characters. Malick is also interested in making his characters symbolic.

The farmer is not even given a name, which makes his role as a farmer singular within this universe and through most of the film, the universe of the film is the farm. When that universe collapses at the end, after the "day of the locusts," in which a swarm of locusts and a  fire destroy the farm, the story leads to two murder. The farmer, realizing Bill and Abby are not brother and sister tries to kill Bill, only to be killed by Bill. The second murder is that of Bill at the hands of the police, and there's also the seperation of Abby and Linda. Does the farm so how represent a kind of paradise, heaven as it were, considering the explicit biblical reference in the title of the film? Compared to the steel mill at the beginning of the film, which has been noted as possibly representing a vision of hell due to its furnace, the farm is a very beautiful and tranquil place, and when the working season is over, it does become a home for Bill, Abby and Linda. It's only when the farmer sees Bill and Abby kissing, realizing they are liars, that paradise falls apart.

The ending of the film, with Linda meeting up with another young girl, suggests a "life goes on" ending, in which things fall a part but the survivors of a tragedy try to find their "days of heaven" again. Whether that means redemption or merely a sense of happiness is the question.