All is Lost(12/14/2013)

I’m not exactly sure how it happens, but for whatever reason we all too often see years where two really similar movies get released in close proximity to one another all too often one completely over-shadows the other.  Sometimes this happens because the more popular film truly deserves it (like when Tombstone trounced Wyatt Earp or when The Truman Show eclipsed EDTV), sometimes both films turn out to be crap and the competition between the two ends up being a race to the bottom (like when Dante’s Peak battled Volcano or Mission to Mars went up against Red Planet), and sometimes both films just end up cannibalizing one another (like when The Illusionist and The Prestige stole each other’s thunder and it wasn’t clear until both were out of theaters that the later was leagues better than the former).   We saw another one of these fights earlier this year when competing variations of “Die Hard in the White House” played out.  Both of those movies were bad (for the record, I preferred the genuinely meatheaded Olympus Has Fallen to the snarky nothing that was White House Down), but late in the year another one of these versus scenarios emerged, one that was a lot more interesting than these fights usually are.

Of course I’m referring to the completion between 2013’s two high-profile films in which lone individuals must survive being stuck adrift in an inhospitable environment with limited resources: Gavity and All is Lost.  Both have more or less the same setup: Gravity is about an astronaut lost in space and trying to get back to Earth and All is Lost is about a sailor (Robert Redford) whose boat is punctured, taking out his navigation/communication equipment and then finds himself sailing into a storm.  That these two movies came out at the same time is probably more of a coincidence than some of the aforementioned titles and their similarities might not be quite as apparent to anyone who’s just looking at their posters or something.  Still, this close proximity is almost certainly worse for the relatively small All is Lost than the world conquering mega production that is Gravity.

As much as I want to let All is Lost live outside of Gravity’s shadow, comparing the two is just too tempting.  Perhaps the most notable difference between the two (aside from the obvious) is that Gravity begins with two characters in the narrative (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), while All is Lost is a one-man-show from beginning to end. As such, the movie is almost entirely devoid of dialogue outside of a monologue at the beginning, an ill-fated attempt at establishing radio communication, and a few stray profanities.  This is perhaps rather ironic given that director J. C. Chandor’s previous film, Margin Call, was a very talky film that almost felt like a stage play at times.  One could almost see this film as a sort of over-compensation on Chandor’s part in order to prove to any of his doubters that he can do a whole lot more than film tense discussions about financial formulas.  Throughout the film we see Redford’s character finding various different ways to survive his ordeal.  One of the interesting side effects about the film’s lack of dialogue is that we often start to see the Redford character doing something and are sort of left in the dark about exactly what he’s doing until it’s done.

The film is, obviously, a pretty big showcase for Robert Redford’s various talents.  He has to convey a lot through facial expressions and actions and it’s a testament to his work that you really do feel like you know what this guy is all about without him having to say much of anything. On top of that, Redford is really put through the ringer here and has to do a lot of stunt work.  The elephant in the room, of course, is that Robert Redford it a 77 year old man.  There’s been a lot of talk as of late about women being cast in horror movies (and perhaps Gravity) because audience (rightly or wrongly) perceive them as more vulnerable and want to protect them as if they’re your sisters, daughters, or girlfriends.  I think Chandor is perhaps doing the same thing by casting someone who could potentially fall break his hip at any moment and who potentially reminds people of the grandfathers.

Some people have been viewing All is Lost as a metaphor for the 2008 stock market collapse, an interpretation that is perhaps invited because Chandor’s previous film was Margin Call.  The argument, I gather, is that Redford’s character (a man of obvious wealth) was playing a dangerous game by going to sea alone (much as the people on Wall Street were playing a dangerous game by pooling sub-prime mortgages) and that the film depicts the moment where the best laid plans go to shit and the person who started it all needs to scurry around a right the wrong.  The film is making some kind of statement about the free market (after all, the trouble all starts when Redford rams a shipping container filled with cheaply made sneakers) but if it is meant to be a parallel to the stock market crash it is a rather incomplete one.  The Goldman Saches of the world did not only place themselves in danger with what they were doing; they placed millions if not billions of people in financial jeopardy with their recklessness, and there’s no parallel to that here.

For the most part, I’d say that All is Lost is a pretty damn good movie in its own high concept sort of way.  It works just fine as a tale of survival and Redford elevates the material quite a bit with his performance.  Whether or not it says a whole lot more than that… eh, maybe not.  Of course I mostly view Gravity as a straightforward survival thriller as well, so that’s not a huge problem.  Speaking of Gravity, I do think that at the end of the day All is Lost is destined to be viewed as the second most important film about isolated individuals surviving in the wild.  Simply put: Space survival > Ocean survival.  Still, Chandor has nothing to be ashamed of because he’s also made a very good little film.  Now if he can just combine the dialogue of Margin Call with the Visual prowess of All is Lost and he’ll really have something to show.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 12/14/2013 (The HBO Documentary Series Edition)

Every year HBO puts out a series of Documentaries, and while I normally shy away from looking at movies that premiere on television, I’m going to go ahead and look at these ones in part because most of them debuted at film festivals before being picked up by the network and also because the Academy seems to think they’re perfectly eligible for Oscar consideration.

Valentine Road(12/8/2013)

Valentine Road is a film about the murder of Lawrence King, who was shot in the head at point blank by a classmate because he was gay.  To say that this story is sad and infuriating goes without saying, firstly because of the obvious tragedy at the center but also because of the rather bizarre wave of support that King’s killer seemed to receive in the aftermath of the murder.  There are some downright sickening interviews in this movie with some of the people who, with a completely straight face, sit and make excuses for this hate crime.  You can’t help but look at these people and think “do these people know that they have a camera on them?”  This didn’t happen in some hillbilly backwater in the 60s either, it happened in Southern California in 2008.  It makes you wonder how clear-cut a case needs to be before idiots come out of the woodwork, but once again we find that some people have no shame.  There’s certainly a lot of food for thought in this case, but I’m not sure that this is the best movie that could have been made about it.  Director Marta Cunningham add a couple unnecessary flourishes like a couple of animated sequences and also makes some very questionable music selections (Macklemore’s “Same Love?” Really?  Could you be more treacley and on the nose?), but this is a story that people should hear about so the film comes recommended.

*** out of Four

 

The Crash Reel(12/9/2013)

I’m beginning to think that ESPN has spoiled us when it comes to sports documentaries.  Their “30 for 30” series has flooded the market with so many quality documentaries about interesting sporting stories that a documentary about sports needs to really be something special in order to stand out, and I’m don’t think that HBO’s snowboarding documentary The Crash Reel quite fits that criteria.  The film is primarily about Kevin Pearce, a young man who was second only to Shaun White in the snowboarding world before a nasty accident left him with a massive brain injury.  While Shaun White continued to greater and greater superstardom, Pearce went through years of difficult rehab before finally having to admit that he’ll never be a pro-snowboarder again.  It’s a stark reminder that the differences between the fortunes of any two people can be so drastically swapped in an instant.  The film is kind of a downer in that way, but an interesting one that actually faces head on the dangers involved in action sports that are usually only given lip service whenever the X-games are on.  Still, it is hard to get to excited about something like this when comparable pieces are being broadcast on a major sports network almost every week.

*** out of Four

Life According to Sam (12/12/2013)

Life According to Sam is a film about a disease called Progeria, which is a deadly disorder which causes children to age rapidly at a young age.  The film focuses in on a particular case study of a boy named Sam Bern, whose parents happen to be a pair of medical doctors that are in a position to try to research the disease in order to find a way to treat it.  I’ll be frank, I have a general distaste for the act of parading dying kids around as a means of getting at audiences, and this movie borders in on doing that.  Frankly this seems like odd subject matter for HBO in that I expect a certain edge out of that network.  This feels more like a PBS documentary to me, but maybe that’s just a misperception.  The movie itself is alright, though I think it tells too much of its narrative through title cards.

**1/2 out of Four

Six By Sondheim(12/13/2013)

And speaking of documentaries that seem like they should be on PBS, I’d say Six by Sondheim sort of fits that bill.  In fact I could easily see this fitting in with their American Masters series or perhaps being the kind of thing they would run during pledge drive.  I didn’t know much about Stephen Sondheim going into this and for that matter I can’t say I cared much about him.  Of course I’ve been in that position before going into various documentaries and when they’ve been well made they’ve made me come out with newfound appreciation for their subjects.  This film could have done that, but I think it was more or less torpedoed by a misguided structure.  The film essentially highlights six different Sondheim songs and periodically goes into detail about them.  These sections are accompanied by what are essentially newly created music videos of each song, and I guess the idea is to tell Sondheim’s life story through them.  That’s an interesting idea, but the film doesn’t really stick with it, instead it seems like a hybrid between being that and being a more straightforward biography.  The movie would have probably been better if it went all-in one way or another, and as someone who isn’t all that familiar with the subject I probably would have rather just seen a simple profile.

** out of Four

First Cousin Once Removed (12/14/2013)

Of the five HBO documentaries I’ve looked at for this piece, First Cousin Once Removed is probably the most cinematic.  The film looks at an old man with Alzheimer’s (you can probably guess what his relationship to the director is) and looks at both his life before he began to lose his faculties as while also profiling his current state.  The fragility of human life has been something of a running theme through all five of these movies and its particularly clear in this one as it shows a smart and learned man slowly lose touch with reality.  Early in the film someone says something along the lines of “I want people to remember him for the man he once was.”  Fair enough, but let’s be real here, this is not a guy who’d be having a film made about him if he never had Alzheimer’s.  His work as a poet, professor, and literary translator are all well and good, but they aren’t the kind of accomplishments for which documentaries are usually made.  Still, the contrast is interesting, and director Alan Berliner does a really good job of making this story visually interesting.

*** out of Four

Dallas Buyer’s Club(12/8/2013)

Being a member of the “millennial” generation, I spent a lot of my life not really understanding why so much of the art and popular culture of the early 90s was so obsessed with AIDS.  When I was growing up, AIDS was just another deadly disease, the kind you could place in-between rabies, tuberculosis, and lung cancer in the “shit I hope not to deal with” file.  I never really associated it with homosexuals and it never really occurred to me that there was any major stigma surrounding it.  It was something that was too recent to be taught as history, but not recent enough for me to have been old enough to remember it.  As such, whenever I’d hear about something like the play “Rent” or see the group TLC pin condoms to their outfits it always seemed a little strange.  That “Everyone has AIDS” parody song from Team America: World Police is not too far removed from how some of this stuff sounded to me.

Over time I gleaned more about how widespread the early stages of the epidemic were, how immediately deadly the disease once was, and also about the social and political dimensions that were at play.  It wasn’t until last year, when I saw the documentary How to Survive a Plague that I really “got” what was so uniquely frightening about AIDS in the 90s: namely that it targeted specific communities which would feel the full brunt of the impact.  But How to Survive a Plague wasn’t just about the horrors of AIDS, it was also about the grassroots efforts to solve the crisis including the tactic of forming “buyers clubs,” which were organizations you could buy membership to in order to gain access to illegally imported drugs which hadn’t received FDA approval.  Now, for all of How to Survive a Plague’s virtues, it was a very east coast-centric view of the AIDS crisis, and that’s where the new feature film Dallas Buyers Club comes in to tell the story of someone who was participating in a similar form of activism down in Texas.

This film focuses in on a Texas electrician/rodeo enthusiast named Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who contracts AIDS in 1985.  Woodroof is a straight, white, male and also the living embodiment of what people think of when they think of red states: he’s a bigoted, homophobic, he-man who lives in a trailer and will come to blows with anyone who slights him.  Needless to say, he’s shocked and offended when he’s handed his diagnosis by a pair of doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner).  After going through denial, anger, and depression, Woodroof finally starts doing something to treat his illness.  At first he starts using AZT, which was the main drug being tested at the time, but he learns from a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) about a range of alternative drugs that he could be using.  From there he and a transsexual AIDS patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) that he met in the hospital decide to open up business as a buyers club.

Woodroof’s motivations for starting his buyers club are more than a little dubious.  He certainly believes that he’s saving lives, but he also makes no bones about the fact that he’s running a for-profit business and he does deny people service whenever they can’t pay.  To make what is probably an overly grandiose comparison, he’s a little bit like Oskar Schindler in the way that he sort of walks the line between humanitarian and profiteer.  That’s the thing about Woodroof, he can be extremely unsympathetic at times.  There have been a lot of people complaining that this is a movie about AIDS in the 90s but told from the perspective of a straight man, implying that Woodroof was chosen as a subject because he’d be an audience surrogate that the film’s predominantly heterosexual audience would more readily relate to.  However, in addition to pointing out that the “man bites dog” principal is in effect, I’d point out that at this point in time telling a story from the perspective of a homophobic asshole is probably the more challenging route when trying to elicit audience sympathy.

A lot has been said about Matthew McConaughey as of late.  He seems to have realized that there wasn’t much of a future for him in making bland romantic comedies (a genre that has not been popular recently) so he’s been taking roles in a lot of independent movies like Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike.  They’ve been calling it “The McConaughssiance,” and it’s been one of the more written about stories in the film world.  A lot of his recent success has come from ability to find roles that fit his smooth southern persona.  That’s sort of true here, but he’s a lot more prickly in this movie than he usually is.  There’s none of that “alright, alright, alright” stuff here and, as is often the case with AIDS roles, there’s a lot of weight loss and weakness onscreen as well.  Jered Leto is also good here, he has to do all of the usual “dying of AIDS” traits that McConaughey needs to exhibit but has the added challenge of portraying a transsexual.   I was less fond of Jennifer Garner though, the actress does the best she probably could, but her doe-eyed well-meaning character is emblematic of a lot of the film’s weaker elements.

To be blunt, I went into this movie with some pretty low expectations.  The trailers made it look really corny and I had a hunch the whole film would just be this really bland story of redemption.  For the most part, it was better than I thought it was, but it loses a lot of steam in its third act and sort of does turn into that movie from the trailer.  A lot of the ambiguities about the Woodroof character are smoothed out as the film settles into a relatively simplistic “Woodroof against the system” narrative.  Woodroof’s hatred or AZT is not entirely rational: a lot of what the pharmaceutical companies were doing during the time wasn’t a shadowy conspiracy so much as it was the usual slow pace of scientific advancement and the laws in place to hold back unapproved medications also existed for some good reasons even if people with good intentions occasionally found themselves stuck in their crossfire.  This is more or less acknowledged through a title card that’s onscreen for all of two seconds at the end, but the actual film doesn’t really acknowledge a lot of these complexities.

Ultimately I thought Dallas Buyer’s Club was a fairly minor film.  Every award season we get a couple of mediocrities like this show up to ride the coattails of the overqualified performances that inhabit them.  I’m thinking of past examples like The Last King of Scotland, or Crazy Heart, or Monster, or maybe even A Single Man.  They’re not bad movies, they have enough going for them to qualify as passable indie fare, but once all the Oscars are handed out they quickly get forgotten.  So, yeah, Dallas Buyers Club is alright.  See it if it sounds interesting to you, but (and I hate to be that guy who insists that the obscure-ish documentary is vastly superior), How to Survive a Plague is a much better look at AIDS in the 90s and once you’ve seen that this kind of looks like weak sauce.

*** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Harry Potter: It All Ends

Harry Potter 7-Harry Potter 8

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

For almost an entire decade, the Harry Potter series was an incredible cash cow for Warner Brothers.  Adaptations of the first six books had generated a combined $5,421,637,048 in worldwide box office revenue alone.  But there was an end to the gravy train in sight.  J.K. Rowling had only written seven books, which would seem to suggest that there would only seven movies… or would there.  Knowing that their audience would stick with them through pretty much anything, the Warner Brothers execs made the same decision that the producers of the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series, and the The Hobbit series would all end up making as well: the decision to split their last film in two.  It’s a decision that earned the studio a billion dollars in extra box office revenue, but also inspired a bit of light backlash from critics and from the fan base.  Of course the fan base wasn’t going to stay mad at the series for long and while the film is tied with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1 still holds a fairly respectable 79% fresh score.

One interesting thing I took away while watching the recent adaptation of Ender’s Game (a story that pre-dates Rowlings but which, in retrospect, is suspiciously similar) is just how compact it is.  Orson Scott Card’s story managed to tell a complete arc about a boy preparing for a fight and finishing it over the course of a 324 page tome that could fairly easily be turned into a 114 minute film.  If it had been written as a YA novel today it probably would have been expanded into a multi book series whether it needed to or not.  Now this isn’t to say that I wanted the Potter series to have been that compact, but it could have been if it wanted to.  Instead its story was stretched out, and this stretching out of the story started long before Warner Brothers decided to split the final book into two movies.  It was Rowling who decided to turn this fairly simple “chosen one vs. evil” story into seven books when it easily could have been two or three.  She did it a bit more elegantly than Warner Brothers did by setting each book over a different school year, but things have already been slowed to a crawl in order to make the story span six installments up to this point.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that going into these last two movies I have a pretty cynical view of why this final installment was split in two, but I’m also willing to believe that it can potentially work out for the best if it’s executed right.  After all, it’s taken Potter six movies/years to prepare for this final battle so it is sort of logical that it would take him longer to fight it than it did to, say, compete in the Goblet of Fire tournament.  Still, these movies were packaged and sold as separate installments, and as such I will be analyzing them as individual movies rather than two parts of a single whole.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 1

Given that this is a single story split across two films, I expected it to be a rather slow paced affair that stretches a lot of things out, instead it establishes a pretty fast pace right from the beginning by more or less jumping right into the action.  After a short prologue the film goes straight into a chase scene where Harry and his various allies are chased through the sky by Voldemort’s army.  It’s a pretty good scene for the most part and it more or less establishes what the film to come is going to be: an action driven chase film.  The gang never goes to Hogwarts and some of the characters we’ve come to know like Maggie Smith’s Minerva McGonagall are nowhere to be seen.  As such this is unlike any other Harry Potter film and in some ways it’s a little closer to the Lord of the Rings movies in that it depicts three characters on a quest through enemy territory.

As was revealed in the previous entry, the only way to kill Voldemort is to collect and destroy a bunch of magical doodads called horcruxes.  The film is structured around the gang finding these things, and that makes the film kind of episodic in nature.  It moves from set-piece to set piece and is a rather action-driven affair.  Fortunately a lot of these action scenes do have some real weight to them.  This time around the wizards’ wands feel almost like oddly shaped ray guns rather than simple magical instruments and more often than not it feels like Harry’s enemies are shooting to kill.  There are some pretty solid set-pieces throughout the film like a shootout at a diner, a heist that plays out at the ministry of magic, a fight with Voldemort’s boa constrictor, and a rather intense chase scene through the woods which ends with Harry’s very short lived capture.

It does sort of stretch credulity that Harry is able to escape from all this non-sense.  For all the time the series has spent showing Harry preparing for these battles, he still doesn’t really seem all that powerful.  His success often seems to say more about the relative incompetence of his foes, particularly the rather lax security at the Ministry of Magic and Bellatrix Lestrange inability to keep the world’s most highly valued prisoner guarded.  Beyond that, the gang’s success also all too often seemed predicated on their ability to use a rather convenient and ill-defined teleportation spell that often gets them out of hairy situations.  When the gang isn’t going after horcruxes they’re hiding in the woods and arguing about… stuff.  Honestly I’ve kind of stopped keeping overly close attention to the interpersonal relationships at this point.  Here they mostly seem like friends until Ron suddenly turns into a little shit and tries to leave, possibly because he’s being influenced by whatever magic the horcruxes are giving off.  Then he comes back.  It’s not an overly fascinating arc, in part because this isn’t really a film that’s built to accommodate character development.  These characters are pretty much supposed to be as developed as they’ll ever be going into the climactic battle with Voldemort.

Tonally, the series is darker than it’s ever been.  It’s also literally darker than it’s ever been because Eduardo Serra seems to have really taken the moody look the series has been taking to something of an extreme.  I like my lighting a little dark too, but man, I had to really squint to see some of the scenes in this one.  But I digress.  The series really seems to be at its most grim here, but that doesn’t stop it from incorporating its most ridiculous character at the end.  That’s right, fucking Dobby the house elf shows up in the final scene and is instrumental in the film’s climax.  He also dies in the process, which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be sad… but I mostly found it kind of funny.  I’m not exactly sure why Dobby death is given all this reverence while Brendan Gleeson’s character is unceremoniously killed off screen, but that’s the direction they went with.

I also question a diversion taken earlier in the film’s final act where an old man is nice enough to stop and tell a long piece of wizard lore (which is helpfully illustrated through an odd animated sequence) even though he fully intends to betray all three of them.  Obviously this story is going to play into events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, but here it just feels like an open-ended exposition dump.  Really the whole film feels odd because in many ways it’s a film that doesn’t have either a beginning or an end.  The lack of an ending is obviously in the nature of the beast when you’re watching a movie with “Part 1” in the title, but I do think the film could have done more to ease us in at the beginning and maybe better establish what Potter has been doing in the time since the last movie and for that matter why he thinks for even a second that it would be a good idea to attend a wedding when he’s about to be fighting a war with the forces of evil for the fate of the world.  If I had seen this movie in 2010 and spent full price to see this I probably would have felt a little ripped off, but I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t mostly find it enjoyable as it was happening.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 2

If there truly was backlash against the idea of splitting the final Harry Potter film into two, it had mostly died by the time the second of the two “Deathly Hollows” films came along.  For the most part, critics and audiences were happy to embrace “Part 2” as the culmination of a big long journey they’d all taken.  In fact it has the highest RT score of all the films and by a wide margin.  It also killed it at the box office.  It was the first movie to best The Dark Knight’s opening weekend record (it held the record for all of ten months before it was usurped by The Avengers), and would go on to gross 1.3 billion dollars worldwide.  As of this writing it’s the fourth highest grossing movie of all time and far and away the highest grossing Potter film… unless you adjust for inflation, in which case the first film is number one with a bullet, at least domestically.  Either way, I have to say I’m a little surprised that it was able to do that.  This is a movie that would not make a lick of sense to anyone who hadn’t already seen the previous seven movies.  Who were these people who bought tickets to “Part 2” but not “Part 1?”  I guess they were just keeping up on DVD or something.  Maybe this was a precursor to the rather strange phenomenon we all witnessed earlier this year when “Breaking Bad” suddenly had a huge spike in its viewership during its final season.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 is a different beast from most Potter movies.  For one thing, it’s really short.  Well, maybe not by most standards, but it’s definitely the shortest one of the series.  This is of course a byproduct of the splitting in half of the final installment, but it is interesting to note that it’s the 150 minute “Part 1” that received the brunt of the installment’s combined four hour and forty minute run time.  Actually, come to think about it, almost all of the Potter movies that were released during the summer season have shorter run times than the ones that came out during the holiday season. Weird.  Anyway, this “Part 2” definitely feels more like half a movie than “Part 1” did.  In many ways it’s a film that just serves as one big long extended climax for its entire run time… and I’m not sure I like that about it.  In fact, it kind of reminded me of The Matrix Revolutions.  Both films seem to be missing first and second acts, both have humungous battles in the middle of them, both end with big fights between the hero and antagonist, both have their heroes knocked out at some point, hell, both even use train stations as metaphors for a sort of purgatory/limbo state.  I’m not saying that it’s as bad as that rather infamous third Matrix film, but I do think both films suffer similar problems from having been forcibly split from their first halves.

Truth be told, there isn’t really a whole lot to say about this one.  There’s not much of in the way of plot development beyond “we’ve got to finally kill Voldemort,” there’s no dramatic shift in tone, and there are no new characters (except for Dumbledore’s brother, who seemed like a bizarre and pointless element to be introducing this late into things).  For the most part, the movie can be divided into three set-pieces: the robbing of the goblin bank, the Hogwarts battle, and the final confrontation with Voldemort.  The whole bank robbery section was fun, but felt like nothing more than time filler.  In fact, I’m calling “shenanigans” on this whole “find the Horcruxes” plot device.  If they’d just cut the number of horcruxes down to about three they probably could have fit this installment into one film pretty easily.  As for the battle scene… it was alright.  I’m not exactly sure where Voldemort got this army from, prior to this film the “death-eaters” seemed more like a cult than a legion, but that’s probably nit-picking.  To some extent these epic CGI battle scenes are to be expected at the end of a fantasy series, and this one was mostly passable.

If nothing else, seeing scenes like that one give me a newfound respect for what Peter Jackson was able to accomplish with the battles in his Lord of the Rings series: staging these things is obviously a lot harder than it looks.  And, speaking of things that this movie gave me a renewed appreciation for, seeing the wizards fighting one on one made me really miss lightsabers.  Watching Harry and Voldemort stand around and throw fireworks at each other just doesn’t have the same appeal of seeing Luke and Darth Vader fencing up close with that super memorable buzzing sound.  Also, Voldemort’s tactics seem a bit suspect.  He does a very bad job of protecting his snake for one thing.  If I had a python whose survival was essential to preserving my immortality I’d probably keep it in a bank vault or something, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be using it as an attack dog like Voldemort did both here and in the last movie.  I also don’t exactly understand how Harry’s whole journey through limbo worked, or why Voldemort failed to just fucking behead him while he was out cold.  Voldemort’s plan to just stroll over to Hogwarts and brag about his victory also just strikes me as stupid.

The only thing here I found particularly noteworthy was the revelation that Snape had actually been a double agent the whole time and that his defection to Voldemort had been a ruse intended to make Voldemort steal a really powerful wand under false pretenses.  As far as plot twists go that’s not half bad, and I guess I should probably take back some of those potshots I took at Dumbledore for being stupid enough to hire Snape in the first place.  Still, all of it seems like a rather convoluted way of setting up a somewhat anti-climactic ending where Voldemort gets killed by his own wand backfiring on him.  I can’t help but think it was all done as a means of setting up a situation where Harry can kill Voldemort without actually getting his hands dirty.  Oh, and don’t get me started on that ridiculous epilogue, who the hell wanted their last image from this universe to be one of comfortable domesticity?  Not me.

Earlier I compared the audience that showed up to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 to the Johnny-come-latelys that waited until the last season to finally start watching “Breaking Bad.”  Oddly enough, I kind of feel the same way about the last episode of that show as I did about this movie: it was exactly what I expected it to be, but disappointingly, nothing more.  There are worse things it could be of course.  Ultimately I think its Achilles heel is almost entirely derived from the fact that it’s the final act of what should have been one final film.  In fact, and I’m shocked to be saying this, I might have actually liked “Part 1” a lot more.

Some Final Thoughts on the Series

So, I’ve now dedicated nearly twenty hours to this. Was it worth it?  Eh, I don’t know about that.  I’d say my final appraisal of the series is decidedly mixed.  Of the eight films I’ve given positive marks to six, but my interest in the series peaked at the fourth film and none of the subsequent installments was ever really able to recapture that lightning in a bottle.  In fact I kind of actively got pretty sick of the whole thing somewhere around the sixth movie, though I’ll admit that part of my problem there was that I was watching all of them over the course of a year rather than over the course of a decade.  At the end of the day an “octology” of films just kind of feels like a rather unwieldy format.   I think this is a story that either needed to be dramatically shortened into a three film trilogy or lengthened into a sort of epic Game of Thrones style T.V. series where you really got to know and understand everything about this world.  As it is, I feel like only a small fraction of what was set up over the course of the series was really all that necessary if all the story was going to amount to was a mission to track down and break a bunch of trinkets followed by a pretty standard battle between CGI armies.

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense that the fourth film would be my favorite.  The first three films were all flawed as hell, and then the “Yates” movies all had problems of their own.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire one was the only one that really managed to get everything right and sort of be the best of both worlds.  I liked the fifth and sixth films as well, but in retrospect I think it was during those installments that things really kind of started to go wrong again.  I think the whole series made a big mistake by sticking to the “another year at Hogwarts” formula for too long.  It made it so that the whole series was just a big setup, one which no one final overstuffed installment was ever going to be able to really pay off.  If I were to rewrite the series I would have started it with Harry a little older, then had him graduate after that fourth film, and then had the last few installments be dedicated to him spearheading this war against Voldemort.

That said, I’m not sure I ever would have really been in much of a position to fully take this series into my heart even if it was less flawed.  It’s just not something I grew up with, and as such it was simply never going to displace Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek, or Batman, or Spider-Man or any of the other franchises that left an impression on me at a young age.  To some extent I’m sure that all of these franchises can be torn apart, and I’m sure that all of them can seem kind of silly, but to a certain generation they were everything and I’m willing to bet that if this series had entered my heart at the right time I would have really been into it.  As it is, I can certainly say that I’m glad I watched them if only to have better insights into Hollywood’s current obsession with adapting YA series.  I know for sure that my recent review of Ender’s Game would not have been the same without this experience under my belt, for example.  But beyond that, I did find plenty to enjoy while watching all these movies.  I liked seeing the parade of British character actors, I liked a solid handful of the action set pieces scattered throughout the films, and it was interesting to see the films’ three young stars grow up in front of my eyes as the series progressed.  All in all, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Next month will be my season finale and I’ll be looking at the two films that, more than any others, inspired me to start this series.  A pair childrens’ films from directors who aren’t normally associated with family entertainment: Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sipke Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

The Great Beauty(12/1/2013)

Though he’s been buzzed about for a while, The Great Beauty is the first film from director Paolo Sorrentino that I’ve been able to see.  That’s not an entirely embarrassing admission I suppose (while highly praised, Sorrentino hasn’t quite reached the lofty heights of true European giants like Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, and Béla Tarr) but it is a little odd.  I first heard about Sorrentino when his 2008 film Il Divo was getting some positive buzz, but I was ultimately scared off of seeing it by reviews which suggested that it was borderline incomprehensible for anyone who wasn’t knowledgeable about Italian politics.  I was also put off by some rather strange descriptions I’d heard of his 2011 English language film This Must Be the Place (which starred Sean Penn as a glam rock star seeking revenge against a Nazi war criminal).  His latest film has all the trappings of a breakthrough that can’t be ignored: it got great acclaim at Cannes (even though it didn’t win any awards there), it’s been submitted as Italy’s entry in the Academy Awards, and most importantly it’s being released by the newly resurrected Janus films.  In my book, that’s a must see.

The Great Beauty is a sort of 21st century answer to Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita (and if you haven’t already seen La Dolce Vita you can probably stop reading this now, The Great Beauty is probably not the movie for you).  Rather than looking at a new generation of Italian socialites, this film sort of suggests that the ones from that movie never really grew up and are still behaving the same way.  The film opens with a lavish party filled with loud music and exotic dancers.  It’s the kind of thing you’d normally see at a hip nightclub except that half of the people dancing are geriatrics.  The celebration is in fact a 65th birthday party for an author named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man who wrote one very highly regarded novella when he was young and rather than follow that up with another work he instead dedicated himself to the Roman nightlife.  He’s still highly regarded amongst his high-society peers and carries himself like the Italian version of the guy from Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man Alive” commercials, but at the bottom of it all is a feeling of emptiness.  The film begins with Gambardella in a sort of state of crisis as he wonders if he’s partied his life away and from there the film contemplates what it looks like to have a mid-life crisis when someone’s already been behaving like a 22 year old his entire adult life.

Like La Dolce Vita before it, this is a sort of picaresque journey through Italy’s high society in all its absurdity.  Gambardella seems to go from decadent party to decadent party and meets all kinds of strange people, and this can be both exhilarating and exhausting in its own way.  It’s the sort of life that one would imagine Bill Hader’s Stefon character from SNL living and you can understand why someone would maybe be sick of it after a while.  Gambardella does question some of the pretentious nonsense he’s exposed to (two of the film’s best scenes show him rebuking a ridiculous performance artist and a smug dinner party guest respectively), but he also dutifully continues to attend these events and has strong opinions about the various rituals involved in, say, attending a funeral.  The film’s narrative is extremely episodic and Gambardella’s arc is really subtle to the point where it can be almost entirely missed if you aren’t paying pretty close attention.

The Great Beauty is the kind of movie that seeks to be a sort of portrait of a city at a certain point in time, but it looks at that city through a very specific generation and socio-economic lens.  It’s a very boomer-centric and upper class idea of what’s hip and happening.  One wonders if Jep Gambardella even know how culturally irrelevant he is?  Has he seen the clubs that aren’t filled with old geezers?  Has Sorrentino? The film does seem to know that there’s something a little bit off about someone this old dancing along to house music, but it never quite plays the image for comedy.  I guess it just strikes me a little odd that, rather than creating a La Dolce Vita about a new generation of Italians, Sorrentino has instead opted to keep on following the baby-boomers (or whatever that generation is called in Italy) to the bitter end.

This has been a tough movie for me to really get handle on.  Part of me thinks there’s something about it I’m not getting and another part of me thinks there’s nothing to “get” and that I’m just overthinking things.  I went in expecting this to be a movie about the emptiness of being a socialite, that it’s a life that ultimately leaves you with no true legacy because once everyone who once knew you is dead you’re left without much for anyone to remember you by.  I guess that message is in there, but Sorrentino sure takes a roundabout way of getting to that.  In the meantime we get a whole lot of vividly captured visuals and some amusing anecdotes about the Italian upper-crust.  These elements are sort of entertaining in and of themselves, but only to a certain point, and by the time an old mother Theresa figure shows up about two hours into the film I was beginning to grow a little tired of the whole thing.  If I sound a little frustrated and disappointed by the movie, I am, but only when looking at the film by the standards of Euro art films.  There probably is more to think about and enjoy here than there is in most films and it is a movie I would recommend, at least to the right kind of people.  That said, if you’re really that interested in seeing a movie about rich Romans you’re probably better served simply re-watching the film I’ve mentioned over and over again in comparison to this one (La Dolce Vita), because this certainly isn’t going to be unseating that movie anytime soon.

*** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 12/10/2013

Blancanieves(11/17/2013)

Those who levied excessive praise on The Artist, take note, because THIS is how you make a contemporary silent film.  Director Pablo Berger was already in production on the film when Michel Hazanavicius’ overrated neo-silent film premiered at Cannes, and I can only imagine his frustration when he learned that his film’s most unique feature would be overshadowed by another film which, quite frankly, didn’t use it right.  That movie used the idea of making a modern silent film as a platform of to bounce a bunch of meta jokes off of, but this one take the form more seriously and feels more like a visual aesthetic than a gimmick.  “Blancanieves” is the Spanish name for “Snow White,” and the film is indeed an adaptation of that story (the Grimm version, not the Disney version) which places the action in the world of early 20th century bullfighting.  It’s a really smart way to tell what is essentially a pretty simple fable and bring new life to it.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a new classic, but it’s easily the best silent film of the last fifty years.

***1/2 out of Four

Pain & Gain(11/30/2013)

Coming off of three straight Transformers movies, I guess Michael Bay needed to take a break by making a decadent hyper-violent satire.  If I’m going to compare Pain & Gain to any movie from this year it’s probably going to have to be Spring Breakers, another crass hyper-stylized ostensibly satirical glimpse at a bunch of extremely vapid people who have taken some of the excesses of American pop culture too seriously.  Like that movie Pain & Gain is like a semi-interesting idea that sort of got out of hand, it makes its point about body-building/self-help culture about twenty minutes into its run time and then keeps on repeating that point for 90 more minutes.  I could forgive that if the film was actually all that funny, but I think a lot of the film’s wit is drowned by Michael Bay’s excessive proclivities.  He shoots the film like an action blockbuster rather than a real comedy and a number of genuinely biting moments are kind of wasted as a result.  The Coen Brothers managed to say more about people like this in a sub-plot of one of the less fondly remembered films (Burn After Reading) than Bay could in two hours and nine minutes of Pain & Gain.

** out of Four

Stories We Tell (12/3/2013)

This documentary from Sarah Polly has received what can only be called rapturous praise, and while I found some things to like about it, I can’t say I fully understand why people are so enamored with it.  The film is about Polly’s own family, and focuses in on the revelation that the man who raised her was not her biological father and that she was actually the result of an illicit affair between her mother and an actor named Harry Gulkin.  To be blunt, I don’t think the story of Sarah Polly’s family is inherently interesting.  I suppose it would be odd to learn that you were the child of an extramarital affair, but it isn’t all that unusual and the circumstances of the affair itself aren’t all that unusual either.  The idea, which Polly explicitly brings up through voice-over, is that this is meant to be a sort of existential meditation on the nature of truth and the differences between people’s accounts, but that’s not an overly original idea (it’s been explored dozens of time in the 63 years since Rashomon came out) and I don’t think the extremely minor differences in people’s perceptions of this particular story really shined all that interesting of a light on this one, especially given that these people don’t even really seem to disagree about all that much to begin with.  The film is well edited and put together I suppose, but if Polly’s intent really was to suggest that her family history “says so many interesting things about the human condition” she failed.

**1/2 out of Four

World War Z(12/7/2013)

If ever there was a film that was the beneficiary of lowered expectations it was the film World War Z, which was plagued with highly publicized production problems and reshoots.  By the time it finally came out critics and audiences were so relieved that the finished product was even coherent that they more or less gave it a pass.  But the truth is that this is a film that really has no idea what it wants to be.  It completely eschewed the “oral history” format that made its source material memorable and instead tries to split the difference between being Michael Creighton style techno-thriller and being a Roland Emmerich disaster film.  It was going to be screwed either way because its director, Marc Forster, has no business directing a blockbuster: a fact that was established by Quantum of Solace and more or less confirmed here.  In addition to lowered expectations, the film was also the lucky beneficiary of good timing.  For whatever reason, zombies are a huge craze right now and the film was able to ride that wave of enthusiasm.  Oddly though, this movie doesn’t even deliver on the two things people have come to expect from zombie fiction: an apocalyptic tone and gore.  The movie is an oddity that tries to split the difference between horror film and action blockbuster and fails at being both.

** out of Four

The Bling Ring (12/10/2013)

Rounding out 2013’s mini-trend of satires about idiots with questionable values going on crime sprees (the other two being Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain) is Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a movie telling the true story of a group of upper middle class L.A. teenagers who started breaking into celebrity’s houses and stealing millions of dollars in designer merchandise.  When the film opened this summer it was widely interpreted as a critique of celebrity-worship gone awry, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  None of these teenagers seem to really care that much about any of these celebrities outside of the fact that they’re easy marks.  Their motivation to steal seems to have a lot more to do with their need of money to pay for their drug habits and partying.  In other words, these are common criminals, or at the very least common mischievous teenagers.  If they had lived on the “Boyz n the Hood” side of L.A. rather than the “Less Than Zero” side, I doubt people would have been so quick to view their actions through some pop culture prison: they would have just locked them up and never given them another thought.

So, too me what’s interesting about this story isn’t what these kids were doing so much as the reaction that society had to them, but this film doesn’t do a whole lot to explore that.  Most of the ironic attention that they received after the fact is only briefly touched upon in the film’s last fifteen minutes.  Mostly the film focuses on the crime spree itself, and I’d say this was to mixed results.  On one hand, this was the first Sofia Coppola film I’ve actually enjoyed watching in quite a while.  She’s left behind the snore inducing minimalism of Somewhere and the her interest in dumb rich kids is less obnoxious here than it is in Marie Antoinette.  For that matter I think she once again proves to be pretty adept at depicting modern teenagers without falling back onto too many lame High School clichés.  A couple lines of slangy dialogue here and there don’t quiet ring true, but for the most part I found the kids here more believable than the ones in 90% of movies about young people.  So, The Bling Ring is a perfectly watchable film and it gave me some food for thought and while I’m not exactly sure that Coppola sees this story the same way I do I think the movie is filmed “matter of factly” enough that this isn’t a huge problem.

*** out of Four