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Hughes Brothers #3 – The Book of Eli (2010)

Today, we’re finally entering the home stretch with a look at the Hughes’ deeply flawed, intriguing post-apoc epic…

The Story

The Earth lies charred from some kind of war-related disaster, and what’s left of humanity clumps together in shanty towns held together by barter and violence. Walking west across this wasteland is Eli (Denzel Washington), with a mission to do two things: kick ass and carry mysterious books, and he’s all out of mysterious boo—oh, wait. Eli happens to own the exact book that the warlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants, and so a classic “town of evil vs. wandering battle-monk” scenario kicks into gear.

Spoiler alert, the book is the Bible.

“Thou shalt not get the fuck back up.”

The Production

Eli and his biblical quest began as a gutsy spec script from talented video game writer Gary Whitta (Prey). The boldness of the script helped it gain attention, and it soon fell into the hands of producer Joel Silver, who brought it to the attention of the Hughes Brothers, fresh off an 8-year sabbatical of solo work meant to distinguish their different creative voices. “I didn’t get it right away, my brother did,” says Albert Hughes. “And I said, ‘I don’t know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff.’ And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”

The Book of Eli premiered on January 15, 2010, and immediately tasted blue, furry death at the hands of James Cameron’s Avatar monster. Getting noticed at all around all that background noise was tough enough, but Eli still managed to turn a small profit, picking up a reported $160m worldwide on an $80m budget, which made it a very sturdy, if not quite mind-blowing, success.

There has rarely been anything cooler in the world than watching Eli hunt for cat meat. 

What Works Like Crazy

We’re all agreed that the apocalypse is not going to be cool, right? I mean, when the shit hits, it’s going to be all mushroom clouds and goat-babies and flies pouring out of people’s elbows. But the Hughes Brothers make the apocalypse look cool. It’s not a happening place to be, exactly, but the Hughes’s exaggerated sets and computer-enhanced skylines lend the proceedings an air of epic awesomeness that works for a film carrying such biblical ambitions. The Book of Eli is like the post-apoc movie the Shaw Brothers Studio never had a chance to make, and Denzel Washington is their Jimmy Wang.

Washington kicks the apocalypse’s ass in Eli and manages to totally sell the near-unsellable: an incorruptible man in a world without laws. So many apocalypse heroes are pragmatists who make choices based on need without much thought for scruples, but Eli is a man of morals who answers to a higher power. In any other hands, that character is a doofus, but Washington ditches that and goes for world-weary and kind. He’s a warrior monk who wants nothing and needs nothing except the direction West. It’s a performance that grounds the film and plays well against Oldman’s big bad.

Looking like Bricktop, after the bomb.

Speaking of Gary Oldman—which we should all be doing, all the time—he does solid work in his role, presenting Carnegie in a way that make him believably frightening, and just a little scary without crossing into a Romeo is Bleeding/The Professional cartoon. Carnegie is a believer in his own way. He could care less about the specifics of what the book has to say, but he respects the power in it, and it’s that tension between belief and practicality that drives the film. Eli and Carnegie are waging a private little war, and it’s not really about the book as much as it’s about the way the world is going to be built. Ironically, it’s Carnegie who wants to build civilizations and Eli who wants to empower the individual, despite the Bible’s insistence and building a church between believers. Unfortunately, that’s only the first of many confusion points in the film’s message.

What Disappoints

Or, to put it more bluntly, what the hell is The Book of Eli getting at? Let’s assume that somebody, at some point, had more in mind than just a boot-tapping action movie and actually wanted the movie to say something. Call me crazy, but that’s what I’m going to assume. I mean, that’s why it’s the Bible and not the goddamned Webster’s Dictionary, right?

Spoilers coming.

Yup. Another apocalypse.

Carnegie describes a mass purging of Bibles after the apocalypse, because people believed that belief in the Bible had resulted in the destruction of the Earth. OK, sounds like a religious war to me, which probably means all the other books are—OH WAIT. When Eli arrives at his destination, all other major religious texts are found and accounted for. Since it’s not likely that a couple of dozen blind warrior-wanderers found their way across the wasteland, I’m going to assume that the Bible was the biggest get, the hardest find. It stands to reason that the Bible took the brunt of the blame and the damage while the other texts skated by, so why exactly are we thrilled that the book survives? The movie never makes a truly convincing argument for why the Bible should be passed on. Fair, there’s the whole “it’s not the book, but it’s what the people do with the book” thing that Carnegie represents, but then again we don’t exactly know enough about the people on Alcatraz to know their intentions. And what happens when someone with bigger guns shows up and takes the book? Retaining the Bible and all the competing texts feels an awful lot like hanging on to the past and failing to move forward, which is a philosophy that pretty much everyone embraces at the end of the film, while poor progressive Carnegie is left to be eaten alive. It sounds to me that, like the stragglers in The Stand, these survivors are doomed to make the same damn mistakes as the people before them.

The whole plot boils down to faith, I guess? Except, if I’m allowed to steal and butcher Monty Python, faith is no way to form a system of government, and that appears to be exactly the plan at the end of the film. Eli’s quest seems to be for nothing, and Mila Kunis (as poor pawn-turned-padawan Solara) ends the movie as the new Eli, literally wandering back the way she came and carrying on a mission that seems questionable at best and outright irresponsible at worst.

Zzzzzzzzz…

To be clear, I’m not advocating censorship or rooting for the destruction of the Bible. I’m only saying that the way the story goes about its business leaves a lot of intriguing and disturbing questions that the movie can’t be bothered to explain or clear up. The Hughes Brothers’ themselves kind of waffled around the issues of their film’s message when asked point blank.

In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the “last great war,” because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience. But you’re like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can’t even answer that. I can’t answer some things in all of the movies that we’ve made.

Some questions are tough. Ford tough.

Beyond troubling spiritual questions that even the director can’t answer, The Book of Eli wastes a pretty amazing supporting cast in thankless roles. Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and Malcom McDowell show up to the party with almost nothing to do, and so help me, I forgot Ray Stevenson was even in the film until looking back over the cast list.

Perhaps that’s because the world around the actors is so damn lousy with product placement that there’s hardly room for much else. Even in the apocalypse, at least I know my NAME BRAND truck and my NAME BRAND food will survive! The product placement is so consistent and brazenly fronted through the film—not to mention wildly out of place, considering the premise–that I was constantly reminded of the secretly awesome film Josie and the Pussycats, and when your bad-ass, bleached-out, warworld reminds me of a Tara Reid film, the apocalypse is truly fucking here.

Tara Reid’s Mind Palace

Overall

The Book of Eli is one of the most visually accomplished movies in the Hughes Brothers canon, but it leans too heavily on some shaky spiritual questions and a few outright baffling choices. Crippling product placement distracts from one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, but there’s just enough blood, brawn, and showy violence to keep the viewer from checking out. There’s plenty to like about Washington’s character—although the third act “twist” stretches a little thin to my eyes—but  he’s stuck in a story that feels a little too heavy on faith, not of the Biblical kind, but of the kind that says “as long as it’s really, really cool, the audience will forgive us for pretty much anything.”

The Hughes Brothers Project

2. ???

3. The Book of Eli

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents

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Hughes Brothers #4 – From Hell

The Story

It’s 1888 and someone is murdering prostitutes in the London district of Whitechapel, someone whose prolific and gratuitous knifework earns him the nickname Jack the Ripper. The eccentric Detective Abberline (Johnny Depp) heads the investigation and slowly uncovers a startling conspiracy that links the murders to shadowy Masonic rituals, cultic sacrifice, and the fate of the English crown. Meanwhile, Abberline befriends one of the Ripper’s intended victims (Heather Graham), but as the case drags on, comes to realize that it may take more than solving the case to save her life.

The Production

There are so many Jack the Ripper stories out there, you guys. Like that one video game where he fights Sherlock Holmes? Or that time he turns up in Babylon 5 as an alien space inquisitor? He gets around! But few attempts at the story have been quite as audacious and far-reaching as Alan Moore’s From Hell, an exhaustive 600-page monolith of a graphic novel that uses a widely-discredited conspiracy theory as a diving board into a pool of heady ideas on spirituality and culture, among many, many other things. Basically, From Hell is about everything there is in the world.

“I, uh… I flipped through it.”

This obviously presented a challenge for producer Don Murphy (Apt Pupil) who optioned the novel alongside fellow future squandered-opportunity League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Seeking to trim the narrative down to something movie-sized, Murphy found willing partners in Albert & Allen Hughes, whose own interest in the Ripper legends began as children watching a scary documentary on TV. With the Hughes Brothers came Johnny Depp, then still a few years from his international superstardom. Depp, thanks to his longtime collaboration with Tim Burton, seemed a natural fit for such a dark, gothic story, and the actor expressed interest in the project directly to the Brothers while meeting about another. It was a slam dunk to cast him as Abberline.

Less of a slam dunk was budget-friendly Prague where the production had committed to shoot. Unable to find locations that matched the Whitechapel district, the production had to build several complete city blocks on a soundstage, but while that construction wore on, the script was in a state of demolition. Two writers—Terry Hayes (Dead Calm) and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless)—each took a pass at paring Moore’s novel down, carving away with their pens and plucking out various unsavory tidbits like so many misplaced kidneys, entrails, and other Ripper metaphors, eventually draining Moore’s ocean of ideas down to a straightforward murder mystery (a major change, since the identity of the killer is known very early in the novel, and much of the story is told from his perspective.)

Alongside these cuts were two big additions. The first was Abberline’s psychic abilities—added, the Hughes Brothers claimed, to help make Abberline a more interesting lead. The second was a happy ending that leaves one of the Ripper’s real-life victims alive and well at the end of the story.

Absinthe: The fresher, cleaner, hallucinogenic way to wash up after a murder.

Released just a month after 9/11, From Hell failed domestically, not quite recouping its $35 million budget, likely due to a combination of a national distaste for violence in the wake of that tragedy and rumors that the film narrowly avoided a rare NC-17 for gore. The film fared better overseas and, now distanced from that unfortunate release date, found a healthy life on home video.

What Works Like Crazy

I’ll say this, the Hughes Brothers were certainly an inspired choice to get From Hell up on the screen. “The Menace II Society guys are doing a British true-crime horror story?” you might ask as so many did, but From Hell fit quite comfortably into the Hughes’s early target zone. Like Menace and Dead Presidents, From Hell is a story about class and violence in an oppressive urban environment. London in 1888 wasn’t South Central Los Angeles but it was deeply divided, hacked in two and shared by the wealthy upper class and a poor workforce simply fighting to exist. Forget paying bills; many Whitechapel residents wondered whether they could find a scrap to eat or a place to sleep not infested with crap, a reality largely created, encouraged, and maintained by the ruling class. That one of the wealthy elite might have descended into Whitechapel to literally hunt and carve up its residents for sport caught the public’s imagination partly because it appeared to be a cruel, even inevitable, result of that system. Life is cheap, but how cheap, exactly?

Recognizing the territory, the Hughes Brothers got the details right. The film is thick with moments and scenes that give Whitechapel—although clearly a soundstage—a real sense of living and breathing and struggling. Murder scenes are recreated exactly as they were found during the Ripper case and the shots are littered with little observations that speak to the difficulty of life in the Victorian era.

Freed from location shooting and the need for realism found in their earlier projects, the Brothers splattered the production with the kind of dreamy, gothic touches that had threatened to burst through in their earlier films. From Hell is all stark angles and filthy cobblestones and explosions of bright red color across gray-black stone. The style creates a nightmare London two stops over from Tim Burton’s Gotham City.

What Disappoints

Unfortunately for Johnny Depp, this ain’t a Tim Burton film. Depp’s collaborations with Burton usually sprang from very smart, serviceable scripts, but From Hell leaves Depp to fend for himself in the face of some really baffling choices.

The Hughes Brothers were staring down the barrel of a massive source novel, and they responded by gutting it. Look, I get that. I support radical adaptations—I have to if I want to enjoy, say, Jaws—but the changes in From Hell altered the material dramatically, and created a slew of new problems that were then immediately mishandled.

See, in this scenario, the girl is the novel.

To change the story from a sprawling exploration of the case to a whodunit procedural, the brothers had to shove the novel’s most interesting character—the killer—behind the curtain. OK, fair enough, but unfortunately that leaves the less-interesting Abberline to hog the stage, and instead of layering him with the complexity or detail he deserves as an actual living person who witnessed these events, they changed him into an opium-smoking psychic. They actually grafted superpowers onto a historical person. This is the cinema equivalent of taping Skeletor’s sword to your GI Joe—it’s all surface and it doesn’t fit anyway. (And incidentally, Cobra will just escalate and recruit Battle Cat.)

That surface approach to storytelling reappears throughout the movie. Abberline’s Scotland Yard sidekick Godley (Robbie Coltrane) quotes Shakespeare as his clumsy, artificial “quirk.” The would-be victims are basically one-word adjectives; there’s the grouchy one, the saintly one, the lesbian, and so on. If the movie can’t give the story the depth it deserves, then by God, nobody gets any!

“I read the ending. Peace.”

All of this would be forgiven if the procedural paid off, but it totally doesn’t. In reality, the Ripper case was a fascinating study of the crossroads where modern forensic techniques clashed with archaic human prejudice, but that isn’t present in the film. Depp’s Detective Abberline more or less abandons real forensics and goes with his instincts. He could be the star of a show called Victorian Dream Cop. Abberline follows his gut and his visions to reveal the killer whose identity the audience guessed an hour earlier simply by playing “spot the movie star.” Spoiler Alert: If a major name is playing a bit part, there’s probably a payoff in the third act.

Overall

I disliked From Hell the first time I saw it, and the intervening years haven’t change my mind. When people use the old insult “all style, no substance,” this is the kind of film they’re talking about. The natural intrigue and real-life drama that accompanied the Ripper investigation is dumped out the back window to cram in more style and gore and mood. What’s worse, the film is riddled with bits borrowed from the novel or left over from previous script drafts that make no sense on their own. (Example: when the killer is revealed near the end, his eyes turn solid black, like a shark’s. A nod to the supernatural stuff jettisoned in the adaptation process? Who knows!)

The screenwriter’s toolbox.

Still, From Hell represents a remarkable step forward in the Hughes Brothers transformation from indie auteurs to genre stylists. It’s a very attractive film, if you find eviscerations and buckets of gore to be your kind of thing. The Whitechapel sets created for the film are moody and grim and make up for some of the story’s shortcomings. Some.

With From Hell, the Hughes Brothers altered their style of filmmaking, but it felt more like a natural evolution than an abrupt change–a step forward rather than a step sideways. Johnny Depp was reportedly impressed enough with the brothers that he offered them two of his most recent mega-budget projects, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and The Lone Ranger, although they were forced to decline. Even to this day, and even in spite of the film’s box office and critical disappointment, From Hell remains a calling card for the Hughes Brothers, but for me the film amounts to little more than a stab and a scream in the dark.

The Hughes Brothers Project

3. ???

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents

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The Trouble With Harry: Potter’s Big Problem

Warning: What follows is a very long, detailed discussion of the entire Harry Potter film series. There will be spoilers everywhere, even in this very warning. Harry Potter is a wizard.

This year, the Harry Potter film series came to a triumphant end as Deathly Hallows: Part 2 conjured up $1.3 billion in worldwide box office, because “conjured” is a pun on magic. That dollar amount is by far the highest gross ever for a Potter film, a series already entirely populated by massive, world-beating, international blockbusters.

Harry Potter is the answer to an ongoing question bothering Hollywood and the entertainment media since the early 1980s: when are we going to have another Star Wars? Film fans of a certain age can recall all the crazed marketing and breathless raves for each new flavor of the summer declaring that it might be “this generation’s” Star Wars, even though said generation still pretty much just liked Star Wars. The Fifth Element was supposed to be a new Star Wars. Battlestar Galactica was supposed to be Star Wars for TV. The Matrix was supposed to be a cool R-rated Star Wars. But then, year after year, it always turned out that, well, Star Wars was still the best at being Star Wars.

Harry Potter has been a completely different animal, translating massive success in the publishing world into equally massive success at the worldwide box office (and merchandising and theme parks, etc.). Last week, when Warner Bros. announced the vaulting of the film series, holding the movies off the market and reserving them only for special boxed sets and re-release events, it became official: Potter would never again be treated as simple franchise entertainment, but as a cultural touchstone. These films are going to go for your heartstrings and purse strings forever. Leave impulse shopping to the Fast & Furious movies; when Harry Potter reappears on shelves, it’ll be an event.

An event for the LADIES.

This canonizing of the Potter films is warm fuzzy for film nerds like me because unlike most popular franchises, the Harry Potter series is really good, and not just good for kids or nerds, but good in the ways that we all want movies to be good. The Potter films are well-designed, well-directed, and well-performed. The films all have an impeccable attention to detail and outstanding production value, signs that the people in charge worked very carefully not to screw up what they had.

Franchise filmmaking notoriously promotes cashing in by either cutting costs or rushing the process, but the Potter movies never, ever felt like cash grabs. They’re children’s lit treated as holy verse, B entertainments handled as A material. The films are uncommonly devoted to quality and continuity, something that seems impossible since we’re talking about an 8-film series released across a decade with four very different directors cycling through the chair. Even beyond the Potter story, the franchise’s legacy will forever be tied to the way that it retained production design and actors, especially in how it allowed its child stars to grow up with the project (it was assumed from the start that the child actors would all be replaced one day), and of course there’s an entire generation of outstanding British actors linked forever to the series. There’s never been a franchise quite like this, and likely never will be again.

Move along, Percy.

So, yes, the Harry Potter series is very, very good, and I want to make that perfectly clear before I get into the rest of this article, because even with all the honest praise I just heaped on the movies, I can’t shake a lingering suspicion that I’ve had for a very long time. You see, I definitely believe that the Harry Potter movies are quite good.

The problem is that I don’t think they’re all that great.

Let’s have a couple of unscientific polls, shall we? If you could only watch one Star Wars movie, from now until the end of time, which one would it be? I can’t actually read your minds, but I’m going to take an educated guess and say that the majority of you chose The Empire Strikes Back, with some solid support for Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. (To the one guy who picked Attack of the Clones: I lied, I can read your mind, and you’ll find your place in the world one day, buddy. Chin up.)

How about Coppola’s Godfather series? If you had to pick one of those films only now and forever, I think the poll would look something like this:

The Godfather – 49.5%

The Godfather: Part II – 49.5%

The Godfather: Part III – Sofia Coppola

We get similar results for the Pirates of the Caribbean:

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – 99%

Any other Pirates movie – Your Aunt that really likes Johnny Depp

Pretty much every successful film franchise has at least one great film that earns the franchise the rest of its goodwill. Even The Lord of the Rings series—Potter’s most direct equivalent—had Return of the King, which surpassed the first two films in box office, awards, and endings.

However, if I was conducting a poll on everybody’s favorite Potter movie–the absolute best of the bunch—I think I’d find reasonable support for at least four or five movies on the list, with Prisoner of Azkaban probably eking out a marginal win. You might argue that proves the strength of the Potter films as a series, but on the contrary I think it proves that none of the Potter movies, not one, totally clicks as a film. I own the entire series on home video, but I never feel compelled to throw one in, because I’ve never seen the point in watching just one Potter movie. When I consume the series, the experience is deliberate and methodical. I watch each piece simply to get at the overall story, which I’m pretty sure is the only real way to watch the Potter series because the experience of each individual Potter film is ultimately transitory, simply a delivery system to get you to the next piece. There’s no THERE there.

“The library called. You checked out all the books on how to be an asshole.”

I’ve shared this opinion with others on occasion, but it’s always a dirty, dirty mistake. Tea Party politicians seem more willing to compromise than a Potterite, and I finally decided to quit engaging in the argument when I realized that most of the hardcore Potterfiends aren’t defending the films, they’re defending the books. For fans, the books and films seem to wrap together and fuse into an unbreakable compound. If I’m at a party and complain about some shoddy scene or a shaky plot point, somebody in a fuzzy scarf always screams “but that’s how it is in the book, and here’s why [hour-long explanation]” or “well, that’s not how it is in the book. It should have been more like this [hour-long explanation].” Either way, I’m missing out on the punch bowl.

That’s why I let it go, because there’s really only one response to that line of reasoning, and it’s not a polite one:

Who cares?

I haven’t read the books, and I’m not really planning to. I’ve read at a few of them and decided they weren’t for me, but even if I had read every single one of them cover-to-cover two dozen times, I believe that a movie (and a book, for that matter) has to stand on its own. I can’t sit with the movie and read the novel as a cheat sheet, and the people who make the movies used to understand that. When I was a kid, there was a standing, corny joke about how no Hollywood adaptations ever resembled the source material. It could be assumed that if Hollywood adapted the “Book of Genesis,” there would be an alien invasion in the Garden of Eden.

You ever hear that joke anymore? You probably don’t, because the rise of the internet and the ascension of fanboy culture made that old model obsolete. The thinking used to be that if a property was popular with a niche, changes had to happen to broaden it for the mainstream; after all, the niche was already presold and would show up anyway. That went out the window when the niches got organized. Now, even the slightest change to the source material for almost anything leads to endless wailing and teeth-gnashing, even when the change makes for a better film. Look no further than Watchmen, a book that ends with a giant artificial alien squid dropped on New York.  That ending works for the graphic novel, but would have been laughed out of theatres by the mainstream audience Snyder’s film aggressively coveted. (Not to say that Snyder’s solution made any more story sense, but it was certainly more mainstream-palatable.)

Watchmen’s author Alan Moore has preached against the impulse to adapt everything to film because not every story works for film, something he’s 100% right about. The Harry Potter story clearly works as a series of books. Hell, they didn’t just sell copies, they single-handedly reinvigorated the thirst for analog READING in a generation of human beings surrounded by electronica. If a Potter fan tells me that plot point X works in the book, then awesome. I trust you and I’m thrilled, but that doesn’t mean that plot point X had to be translated exactly into the movie. Changes SHOULD have been made to smooth out the novel’s rough edges and to make it a good screen story, but Potter was treated as sacred writ, and a lot of bad decisions made it to the screen. Not enough to kill the series, but enough to hinder the individual films from achieving the true greatness that maybe ONE more secular pass could have achieved.

I don’t really blame Steve Kloves, screenwriter for all but one of the Potter films; he was faced with a monumental puzzle to solve in adapting the series to film and he did an admirable job. I just believe that the franchise’s problems are rooted in how slavishly devoted they are to the structure of the novels, which is probably a note Steve was handed from up on high. To name just a few of the recurring issues:

Yay! Another school year!

A novel is a contract between the reader and the author, an arrangement in which the reader agrees to wrap themselves in a world and follow the author wherever the author wants to go. In exchange, the author provides a level of detail unlike any other form of entertainment in the world. Novels can meander and digress and wander off into any number of subplots, and the reader will generally stick with it if the language and characters are compelling enough. The Potter books follow Harry through his school years, unfolding over the course of an entire term, including all of his classes and little petty dramas and sports pursuits. The main plot—often involving Lord Voldemort–tends to simmer behind the scenes, lurking around the edges of the narrative until the year is almost over and something happens to trigger the finale. This structure works extremely well for the novel format because Rowling’s world is so rich, but it’s death for film. A movie has two hours to tell its story, and by definition must cut and condense and rearrange the story to get to the good parts. Kloves does what he can, but without the ability to make major changes, the earliest films still look like this:

  • Harry Potter goes to school.
  • Something weird is going on.
  • He fiddles with his classes.
  • When it’s time for the movie to end, the villain appears.
  • Harry wins, the end.

Harry Potter is a passive protagonist in his own story, and that’s dull as hell. The stories should have been rewritten for film to make Harry a more active protagonist, source material be damned.

Oh, look! A Basilisk-Killing Sword!

Almost every single one of the novels ends with some kind of ridiculous, convenient solution to Harry’s problem being dropped quite literally in his lap. I appreciate this on one level because I imagine it would be tempting to write Harry Potter as precocious and implausibly super-awesome at wizarding, but Rowling insists on maintaining the reality that, for much of the story, he’s just a little kid. In the movies, however, these unsatisfying endings are magnified and uncomfortable. That could be fixed. It wasn’t.

The fucking names

OK, fine, this is really more of a complaint with the books, but it bugged the hell out of me that the series kept getting darker and darker, and I’m supposed to take it really seriously, and yet this is still a world in which “Hufflepuff” is a word that people say without laughing. Say it with me. Hufflepuff. Huuuuuuffle Puuuuuuff. If you said Hufflepuff right now, and you didn’t laugh, and you have a bill to pay or a kid to feed, you make no sense to me.

To me, the kid-lit setting doesn’t fully support all the darkness that appears later in the series. It’s like watching Zoobalee Zoo descend into Animal Farm. And does every frikkin’ villain have to have a name like Lucius Malfoy or Bellatrix Lestrange? I’m not saying that everybody in the Potter universe is stupid (note: I might be), but what I’m saying is that if you name your kid Stabs Blackblood, you’re apparently limiting his career options in the Potter universe to “dark wizard” and “ex-dark wizard.”

Playing to the Niche

This is a problem that I lay directly on Kloves. Rule #1 pinned to the corkboard in front of his word processor should have been the words “Assume your audience hasn’t read the book.” Major pieces of the movie only made sense to people who knew what that individual piece meant in the book. (See my big complaint with Order of the Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince below). Even worse, something that wasn’t explained in one movie showed up in the next movie as if literally everyone knew what it was; further proof that the only concern was keeping the vocal fanbase happy, when they should have been worried about the broader audience.

While preparing to write this article, I decided to watch each film again in order to pin down where I believe the movie succeeds or fails–not as an adaptation of a popular book, but as an individual piece of cinema.

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Story: Wittle Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts, where he gradually discovers his own magical talent and the one immutable fact of the Harry Potter universe: someone is always trying to kill Harry Potter.

What Works: This movie takes a lot of shit from casual fans because of the kiddie approach and the presence of Chris Columbus, but to my eyes it holds up surprisingly well. Columbus does an impressive job of world-building, and it’s his work here that lays the foundation for every other film in the series. Say what you will about Columbus, but every frame of every Potter film owes a debt to him. Did Cuaron make the Great Hall look amazing? He piggy-backed on the way Columbus depicted it. Happy with Emma Watson’s performance as Hermione? Columbus cast her. I’ve seen a lot of franchise non-starters come and go—City of Ember; The Golden Compass; Jumper—and although it seems unthinkable to us now, if Columbus hadn’t nailed this first entry, we may never have gotten a second.

What Doesn’t: Woof, where’s the story here? More than any other film, this one is a narrative dud where nothing much happens to the kid except a series of mildly interesting incidents. Oh, sure, there are hints all around that something dark is happening (the unicorn thing is pretty scary), but there’s never any real danger or narrative stakes. Mostly, the film is content to simply stand there and gawk at the various sights and sounds of Hogwarts, and it only gets away with it because the film is so damn charming. The movie only really gets going when the scheduled ending arrives, an ending that wouldn’t have even happened if Harry Potter had stayed in bed that night. Turns out the adults were right—the stone was perfectly well-protected, and Harry’s very presence is what made victory even possible for the villains. Such a creaky story almost does the movie in.

Unforgivable Curse: The power of love? Really? I don’t know what’s more insulting: that this movie actually ends on such a stupid deus ex machina or that future films/books in the franchise had to work in explanations for why this particular piece of shit storytelling never reappeared.

Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets

The Story: Year Two at Hogwarts proves that Harry should have been held back for not learning anything. This time, there’s a silent monster on the loose at the school, petrifying anybody that crosses its path. Harry’s investigation leads to an ancient secret of the Slytherin house.

What Works: It’s nice to see Harry dealing with a consistent, escalating threat as opposed to simply bumbling around the school for a year, even if that threat is kind of a dud. The third act is miles better than the pathetic finale of Stone. Kenneth Branagh pops in to class up the joint and his performance as the bragging, incompetent Gilderoy Lockheart is one of the highlights of the series.

What Doesn’t: Fucking everything else. Chamber of Secrets is probably the worst film of the series, and a big disappointment after the genial, entertaining Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, there’s finally something resembling a plot here, but it’s a really stupid plot and the movie never really gels around it. Branagh’s Dark Arts teacher is a lot of fun, but the other side characters introduced in the film range from annoying to insanely annoying, especially Myrtle, the bathroom ghost who screeches her way through the plot as a irritatingly important character. And, yes, the third act is better than Stone’s “power of love” crap, but it still relies on a deus ex machina involving helpful birds and secret swords that can only answer to Harry. The ending feels as if Harry is playing a video game and just keeps tapping his assist button.

Unforgivable Curse: The big bad—the Slytherin basilisk—is supposed to be on a murder rampage, and yet never actually kills anyone. Instead, every victim has some convoluted coincidence that keeps them from being killed and only petrifies them instead. This plot point stretches credibility, even for a movie this bad, and grew even more ridiculous and out of place with every darkening film in the series.

Also, Dobby. You know it, I know it. Shut up.

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Story: Before he even gets to Hogwarts, Harry learns that the man who betrayed his parents to their deaths, Sirius Black, has escaped prison and is probably on his way to kill Harry.

What Works: Again, all I have to go on is my unscientific, psychic poll, but this seems to be a favorite for most Potter fans, something that we can likely pin on newcomer Alfonso Cuaron, who replaced Chris Columbus after a disastrous second film. Chris Columbus deserves credit for setting the franchise’s look and feel, but equal credit must go to Curaon for finally nailing the tone. Pretty much every film moving forward borrows from the macabre, quirky, Halloween-town vibe that’s established here. This movie is all about the little touches–random monsters screaming through doorways; the beyond-creepy Dementors; the shockingly dark work from Gary Oldman and David Thewlis as old friends Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. This film is also the first to hint at the future direction of the story, with surprise betrayals, hints of a rich history shared by the side characters, and a plot point involving Ron’s rat that forces you to look at previous films in a different way. The Prisoner of Azkaban gets a whole lot right.

What Doesn’t: Minus the problems in the third act, this film only has a few knocks against it. I’m one of the only people left in the world who never warmed to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, even though it now seems patently impossible to imagine Richard Harris performing any of Dumbledore’s late-series actions, even had he lived to be cast. Also, it would have taken just a few seconds of screen time to explain who created the Marauder’s Map, yes? And then non-Potterites like me wouldn’t have spent the next couple of films wondering who in the hell Padfoot and Wormtail were?

Unforgivable Curse: Azkaban is pretty much everybody’s favorite Potter movie, but it has perhaps the worst finale in the entire series, even worse than that bullshit in the first film. To say that the movie has a third act problem isn’t even really accurate; the problem is that it has a fourth act. In screenwriting, the idea is to end your movie when the last question is resolved. When the audience has all the answers, your movie is over. Azkaban’s questions resolve in the Shrieking Shack, and then we have a nice werewolf chase and Dementor attack as our big finale. Yay, the movie is over!

Except it isn’t. Suddenly we’re introduced to the Time Turner, which our heroes must use to solve problems that we didn’t even know they had. “We have to save Buckbeak!” What? “We have to rescue Sirius!” Um, sure! “My dad did that patronus charm!” Of course he—wait, what?

Basically, Harry is saved from the Dementors by a deus ex machina, resolves all of his problems, and then hits new problems that must be solved by YET ANOTHER DEUS EX MACHINA, and the worst one yet. Now that the Time Turner has been introduced and we’ve established that a fucking hippogriff is worth the risk to save, why not use it to save Cedric Diggery? Or Sirius Black? Or anyone else, ever? Azkaban could have been the franchise’s peak movie, the Empire of the Harry Potter franchise, but instead it’s crippled by an incredibly bad storytelling decision.

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire

The Story: Harry is drafted into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a deadly competition that turns deadlier when it’s used by Voldemort as a means to bring himself back from the dead.

What Works: Goblet of Fire has the most focused story so far in the franchise: the movie begins with a problem (Voldemort has a plan/the tournament) and the movie ends when those problems are resolved (Voldemort returns/Harry wins the tournament). The designs of the tournament events are interesting and a little scary. The thing kind of plays like a Harry Potter horror movie, which is a choice that ties nicely into the idea of the world’s greatest monster—Lord Voldemort—returning. It’s especially fun to see other wizarding schools and their respective styles, which develops the broader world of the series. Brendan Gleeson turns in one of the best supporting performances in the franchise as Mad Eye Moody, the latest Dark Arts teacher to have an ugly secret.

What Doesn’t: The Goblet of Fire story had the potential to be a real series standout, but rookie franchise director Mike Newell’s execution of that story is more than a little sloppy. The film feels stitched together, as if major pieces had been excised and cut around, or as if the editor was trying to tiptoe around half-baked footage. This is especially glaring in the final hedge maze scene, in which it’s tough to tell what’s happening at all, anywhere. Oh, look, that guy went crazy! Blame the hedge maze, I guess? Or Voldemort? Run, I think!

The subplot with the Crouch family likewise fails to resonate, and I had completely forgotten it existed until I saw the film a second time. Also, a little too much time is spent with the teenage wizards and their various love lives, but that’s forgivable because it plays into one of the broader themes of the series, namely how the witches and wizards are still growing up through all of these momentous events. Finally, in a series sometimes guilty of dodgy special effects, Goblet of Fire’s effects are among the dodgiest. The underwater sequence, in particular, looks like a nightmare episode of The Snorks.

Unforgivable Curse: The curse of the passive protagonist. Although the story has potential, it’s hindered by a hero character who doesn’t do much of anything except wait for the next big event in the tournament. At least in the earlier films, Harry busies himself by investigating. In this film, the plot more or less happens AT Harry, and he’s left to scream variations on “I didn’t put my name in the cup!” over and over again while everyone hates him.

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix

The Story: The events of the Tri-Wizard Tournament set off a political power struggle for Hogwarts that results in a new headmaster—sadistic, draconian Dolores Umbridge. Meanwhile, the hunt for a secret prophecy draws Harry into a fight that’s way, way over his head.

What Works: As I see it, Order of the Phoenix is the best single film in the Harry Potter series, but it’s still not quite a great film. So many things are working here in the film’s favor – the sense of continuity brought on by Cedric Diggery’s death, the political wrangling for the school, the apple-cheeked sadist Umbridge (portrayed pitch perfectly by Imelda Staunton), and the cracking finale at the Ministry of Magic, featuring one of the best wizard battles in the entire series. You know how in Star Wars, lightsaber battles were always between old men and untrained boys and half-robots, and then in the Phantom Menace we see Jedi and Sith at the peak of their power and we’re all like “Ohhhhhh… I get it now. THAT’s how these fights are supposed to go.” Seriously, that’s the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore at the end of this movie—two masters who know what the fuck they’re doing.

Also, Luna Lovegood is pretty much hands-down the greatest addition to the series since the first film. If only we could all have pseudo-insane drowsy pixie wizard friends who can see dead things.

What Doesn’t: Of course, such a mature entry in the series has to stoop to remind us that the world it takes place in is still very deeply silly, and it does that with a poorly animated baby Giant named Glompy (I think? If it wasn’t named Glompy, it should have been.) Even though the giant looks like crap on screen (seriously, the only critter I’ve ever fully believed in Harry Potter is Buckbeak, and that was two movies ago! We’re regressing!), it wouldn’t even be worth a mention except that he plays a major role in the story’s climax, solving the threat of Dolores Umbridge just when it looked like the kids were going to make it out on their own merits. Deus ex machina, won’t you ever stay home?

Also, the whole prophecy business is a little underexplained. Again, not deadly, but even a little audience confusion is not what you want in your big finale, especially one so well executed.

Unforgivable Curse:  Did I say well-executed? I was talking about everything NOT involving the death of Sirius Black. Was any major series moment as totally botched on screen as this one? For Potter fans, Black’s death is one of the top 5 emotional moments in the entire series, but it barely makes sense as it’s portrayed in the film. For a non-Potterite like me, what the hell is the ghost door and why does the Ministry have it in a secret room? Why depict the shot that kills Black as kind of a half-assed effort from Bellatrix? We just saw ten minutes of wizards screaming gibberish and flinging bolts at one another, so unless you have an eagle ear or knew it was coming, how would you know that what Bellatrix throws is the “death” curse? A momentous moment like that required a little more care to really sell it. As it is, some people (me, for one) thought that Black got tagged with a zinger and just kind of stumbled backwards into a death portal that the Ministry keeps in a closet. No excuse.

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince

The Story: Harry and Dumbledore begin the hunt for Voldemort’s horcruxes by bringing in the teacher who taught Voldemort how to use them. Double-agents reveal themselves and a tragic death occurs.

What Works: In his second outing, David Yates really starts to nail the visuals and bleak tone that will become his trademark in the series. His portrayal of Dumbledore’s memories and the haunting recruitment of Tom Riddle is a series highlight, as is the wrenching scene where Harry must help Dumbledore through one of Voldemort’s horcrux defenses. When Dumbledore dies at the end, the tribute from the students and teachers at the school is especially touching, which is no small feat considering how cold and distant Gambon’s performance of the headmaster has been.

What Doesn’t: You ever rattle off a list and forget the same item every time? That’s this movie for me. It’s almost completely forgettable, even with such mega-moments as the death of Dumbledore and the reveal of the Hogwarts traitor. Jim Broadbent’s potions teacher is a dip in what had been a very memorable string of showy supporting roles (when the character made an appearance in the final film, I had to take a few moments to even remember who he was or why he was important.) This film also makes obvious a growing problem in the series – when the stakes have gotten as high as they have in the world, why the fuck is Harry still thinking about school? The major B-plot in the film revolves around Harry trying to pass his potions class with the margin notes in his textbook left by some genius potions student, but nobody really cares. He should be out finding horcruxes and battling dark wizards, and his classes suddenly seem like the least important thing imaginable. The subplot might as well be about Harry trying to get into the Hogwart’s frog choir, for all I care. Ultimately, the film feels like The Matrix Reloaded for the Harry Potter series: it’s just filler trying to set up for something else bigger and better soon to come.

Unforgivable Curse: Faulty finales are a trademark of the series, but none of the films get it as wrong as the botched reveal at the end of this film. The death of Dumbledore is appropriately effective, but it’s followed by a rushed chase scene that concludes with Snape turning to Harry and sneering in his best Alan Rickman “Yes, I am the Half-Blood Prince!” And then he leaves.

Excuse me… what?

1.)    Why would that matter at all? If Harry had known that little fact earlier, would he have somehow been able to guess that Snape was a traitor? Or just that Snape was good at potions, which HE ALREADY KNEW FROM THE LAST SIX YEARS OF POTIONS CLASSES.

2.)    The way Snape said the reveal makes it sound as if he knew Harry was looking for the HBP. Did he? What if Harry didn’t have that book and learned about that secret Snape spell another way? That would’ve sounded weird, right? “I am the Half-Blood Prince!” “Uh, OK, what is that, exactly?”

3.)    OK, you’re the Half-Blood Prince… so, what does that even mean? Again, ASSUME I NEVER READ THE BOOKS, movie. Are you royalty? Half-royal? Or, like, half-muggle and half King?

4.)    Fuck you.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

The Story: Voldemort’s people have taken over Hogwarts, which leaves Harry and his friends alone in the world on the hunt for horcruxes. Much existential pondering awaits.

What Works: Fucking everything. Although it’s only half of a larger story, DH:P1 is the most cinematically interesting of the entire series. Finally removed from the school and from an artificial school-year structure, the characters finally have room to breathe, live, and act like real people. Everything that happens in the movie is something that the characters CHOOSE to do, which is a refreshing and welcome change. The film is light on action, but when the action arrives (especially during Ron’s temptation and the snake fight in Harry’s hometown) it’s all handled with skill and impressive visuals.

My favorite scene in the entire film series happens here, and it’s one not found in the books. With Ron absent on his angry-sidekick walkabout, Harry and Hermione share a dance to pass the time. There’s just a hint of attraction between the two, but then they part and sit on opposite sides of the tent, back to their gloomy thoughts. This scene is important because it reveals that Harry and Hermione COULD be together, but choose not to (something that the books had hundreds of pages to establish, but that the films have never quite gotten right). Also, it manages to say everything without a single line of dialogue, which, again, is not usually one of the series’ strengths.

Really, DH:P1 is an art film jammed into the middle of a blockbuster franchise, L’avventura with wizards. A welcome, refreshing change of pace.

Also, the puppet-animation scene explaining the Deathly Hallows is frikkin’ boss.

What Doesn’t: As much as I hate to admit it, the main knock against this film (that it’s TOO slow and boring) is kind of true. There seems to be a lot of narrative toe-dragging because all the good stuff is on hold for the last film (which, as I understand it, is exactly how the book is structured.) The subplot about Voldemort’s crew attacking the muggle world is less effective than the filmmakers expect. Who cares? Literally no one we like lives in that world except Harry, and he’s had one foot and nine toes out since Azkaban.

Unforgivable Curse: Apart from being half of a story due to nothing more than studio greed (huge chunks of this film COULD have been cut to condense the story into one movie. I’m glad they didn’t, but they could have), it’s pretty unforgivable to kill off a major, popular character like Mad Eye Moody offscreen. A disturbing sign of things to come.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

The Story: After whacking a few more horcruxes, Harry invades Hogwarts to win back the school and prepare for the final battle with Voldemort.

What Works: This film is all-action, an extended finale after an entire franchise of setup, and it doesn’t disappoint. All the major subplots are resolved, there’s an appropriate and satisfying amount of character carnage to set the stakes, and the final victory over Voldemort feels hard-won. Even Nigel, an character whose actor was chosen by Columbus a decade ago for his awkward gawkiness, gets his hero moment. For those who felt DH:P1 is too dull, THIS is the movie you were looking for.

Also, after years of purring a scant few lines per movie, Alan Rickman finally gets his big moment as Snape, revealing his secret history in probably the most singularly touching sequence in the entire franchise.

What Doesn’t: Again, DH:P2 is really only half of one long movie and doesn’t quite stand on its own as a film. Also, entirely too much time is given over to horcruxes. Harry destroys, like, half of the entire horcrux count in this film alone, all while a major battle is breathing down their necks. It’s a bit busy, which would be forgivable if, again, so many major moments didn’t happen off screen. It’s as if David Yates was unsure of his ability at depicting death scenes, and so he chose to kill no less than four major characters when the camera was pointed somewhere else.

Also, I know the scene is a fan favorite, but can someone explain to me why Molly Weasley knows a spell that can shatter Bellatrix into a thousand pieces, and why THAT isn’t an unforgiveable curse? Seriously, the regular, plain ol’ death curse at least gives you an open casket.

Unforgivable Curse: The dumb final train station scene looks worse every minute, but that’s also the general opinion on the same scene in the book, and so I’ll let that slide.

Nope, instead, let’s talk about how the good guys compromise their moral high-ground right before their ultimate victory.

For seven films, we’ve gradually established that the bad guys hate the good guys’ freedom and that the ultimate goal is to make magic more of an exclusive club, while the Hogwarts approach is that magic belongs to everyone…

Unless you’re from Slytherin.

Just as the battle gets underway, ONE KID from Slytherin steps forward to be like “Hey, maybe we should hand over this one fucking guy so that we can all live,” and in response, Maggie Smith throws the entire Slytherin class into the dungeon/internment area without even so much as a “who’s with us and who’s against us” show of hands. Basically, they profile the entire house based on the actions of a couple of people and take their rights away as wizards and free citizens. What if Voldemort destroys Hogwarts in the process of the battle? How are these kids going to fare under piles and piles of rock? Who are the bad guys here again?

Oh, right. The people with the evil-sounding names.

The name of the school, by the way, is Hogwarts.

By now, I’ve probably completely alienated every single Potter fan, and judging by all the money flying around, that’s pretty much all of you. Once again, I want to make it clear that I really LIKE these movies; I only feel like they came up short. They had a chance to do something truly magnificent, but decided to play it safe by relying too heavily on the source material and earning good buzz on the internet. To make a Costner reference, the studio was Rene Russo, screaming “lay up, Tin Cup!” and the franchise did it every time.

(Ridiculous reference, I know, but if you’re still reading, you earned it.)

Personally, I find it tough to canonize a film series that got so many things right, but never produced even one truly great, indisputable movie. There’s a fine line between simply filming a book and transforming a book into a film, and the Potter series never quite got past Plan A. So while none of the entries feel like a cash grab, neither do they feel like anybody wanted to take a chance at something greater. The studio didn’t want to kill the golden goose, and that hesitation cost Harry Potter just enough of his movie magic.

PS: If I were ranking the Potter films like a standard Project, I’d probably choose this order:

1.) Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix

2.) Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 1

3.) Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 2

4.) Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

5.) Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone

6.) Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire

7.) Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

8.) Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets

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