In my review of Taken, I spoke about two growing trends in mainstream… MoreIn my review of Taken, I spoke about two growing trends in mainstream filmmaking: "older protagonists as a reaction to a market saturated with youth, and weighty actors downsizing into trashy B-movies." The Expendables series and Liam Neeson's recent output find some of the most beloved actors of their period taking on roles that would have once been filled by people half their age and a quarter as talented.
Into this market driven by nostalgia and the need for pension plans comes Red 2, a sequel to one of the more slow-burning hits of 2010. Reuniting the original cast with a couple of new faces, it aims to bring a more overtly comic-book feel to a sub-genre built around nuts-and-bolts action thriller plots. The result is a little disappointing, not to say a little dull, but it's not without a few good moments.
As much as I objected to Taken, on grounds both structural and moral, I fully acknowledge the appeal of seeing older action stars - nay, just older actors - on screen in prominent, active and entertaining roles. Because so much of mainstream cinema is shaped around the demands of teenage boys, the range of roles available to actors becomes more restricted as they age. Unless you want to carve out a career playing Basil Exposition or people's grandparents, you're pretty much dead in the water by the age of 50.
A good benchmark from this perspective would be the films of Nigel Cole, such as Saving Grace and Calendar Girls. Both of these films are driven by older characters, who conform to some generic conventions but still feel like real people. While neither of these films are the most disciplined or structurally sound, they tell interesting stories which charm us and lead us to forgive or overlook their shortcomings.
While Cole's output wins outright in a fight over well-written female characters, Red 2 does have as much going for it behind the camera. Dean Parisot's output has been uneven, but he did helm the highly entertaining Galaxy Quest, once described by J. J. Abrams as "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made". Alan Silvestri, the film's composer, has a great record with Robert Zemeckis and more recently with Marvel. And the film is shot by Enrique Chediak, who did a really good job on 127 Hours and 28 Weeks Later.
Sadly, for all this build-up, none of the talent involved in Red 2 comes close to matching their reputations, on either side of the camera. Whatever the merits of its predecessor, this film is ultimately rather lacklustre in both its story and execution. While it's assembled in a workable enough manner to pass a couple of hours, it is in the end pretty forgettable fare, and considering who is involved that is the last thing that it should be.
Part of the problem lies in the attitudes of the cast. Todd Gilcrist wrote in his review that Bruce Willis "seems unmotivated to smile at all, much less offer a series of emotions that constitute a believable or compelling performance." While you may not agree with Gilcrist word for word, he does hit the nail on the head: none of the actors look like they're having fun. That wouldn't be a problem if the film were a sombre, depressing existential parable, but it is a problem when you're trying to make an upbeat action thriller with lots of jokes.
Much like Sean Connery, Willis is an actor who clearly betrays when he does and doesn't want to be in a given film. When he's confident in a script or having a blast on set, such as in Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys or Looper, he holds himself much more precisely and seems far more natural in his movements. When he's doing something purely because he needs the money, he slumps his shoulders, narrows his eyes and is much less responsive to his fellow actors. While this is by no means his worst performance, let alone his worst film, it does give off vibes of him only doing the part because he has to be that.
It's not just Willis that seemingly doesn't want to be involved. John Malkovich has been tetchy and irritable in other films (such as Shadow of the Vampire), but there's a weariness to his performance here which doesn't gel with the character's dynamic dialogue. Helen Mirren doesn't get a greal deal to do, and her attempts at deadpan humour just come across as flat readings. The only main actor who commits and engages to the required level is Byung-hun Lee, and his character seems to have escaped from a far better, far more interesting film.
The plot of Red 2 is decidedly episodic. Much of the film is built around set-pieces, either involving Lee's character wanting revenge on Willis or a third party becoming the target of either side. The set-pieces are technically accomplished, with good pyrotechnics, decent CGI and some realistic sound design, but there's not enough of any substance to link them together in a meaningful manner. To borrow from Shakespeare, it's a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.
In slightly different hands, this could have been handled better. The red mercury buried beneath the Kremlin is a neat little plot device, and Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins do wring the most they can out of their supporting roles, channeling the more thoughtful, more British spies present in The Ipcress File. All the little twists involving people changing sides which could have been used to drive the film are instead presented like the action sequences - as distractions, and nothing more.
The same goes for the romantic subplot-cum-love triangle that the script tries to tease out. There is potential (albeit well-worn potential) in both the female characters' main conceits, i.e. the inept love interest who finds herself caught up in events, and the old flame who puts the cat among the pigeons. But while Catherine Zeta-Jones takes to her costume well, it's ultimately a lot of under-developed flash, and Mary-Louise Parker isn't all that convincing.
In the midst of all this, it is more than possible to enjoy Red 2 as empty, disposable spectacle. It's clearly not trying (and failing) to make a lot of important political points, and its lack of pretension is to be applauded as much as its lack of ambition should be decried. If you only go to the cinema to see explosions, car crashes and famous people in various slow-motion poses, this will satisfy your appetite.
Red 2 is a disappointing action thriller which finds both cast and director falling short of their past potential. While the action is technically sound and there are a few witty or impressive moments (mainly involving Lee's character), it's ultimately too lackadaisical and episodic to cut the mustard. In the end it's not a bad film per se, just an aimless one which could have been a lot better with a tighter script and a stronger hand at the helm.
When I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are… MoreWhen I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are both thin on substance and have a limited lifespan. Films as varied as American Graffiti and Dirty Dancing revolve around the same old stories of young love and heartbreak; the ones that last are not just those that evoke their period, but which contain some kind of deeper truth about the process of growing up.
Being a young man still very much within the coming-of-age bracket, it is hard to me to say how good Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will look in ten years' time, when the gaming world has moved on and young people no longer talk like extras from Juno. All that can be said right now, four years on, is that this is one of the best coming-of-age comedies in a long, long time.
For starters, Edgar Wright has managed to make a film about video games which doesn't feel like a video game adaptation. The plot on paper does seem like a video game: defeat a series of bosses to win points and get the girl. But unlike, for instance, Tomb Raider, the film doesn't feel like you are watching someone else playing a game and expecting you to be interested. The fight sequences feel like natural continuations of the story, and the character development in-between is a damn sight more complex and insightful than the swathes of exposition in something like Silent Hill.
The film has an extraordinary visual style which is somewhere between Tron and Sin City. Like Tron, you feel at moments like you are inside a video game rather than just a spectator. And as in Sin City, the film retains a very literal comic book structure, albeit without the dull pomposity of Robert Rodriguez's film. The video game elements in both the design and content of the battles are used to complement and enhance the conflict; the powers gained and used by Scott and his foes do not become distracting goals unto themselves.
Like the comic it is based upon, Scott Pilgrim jumps from one form of reality to another without warning. There are many flights of fantasy which are either poignant or hilarious, and the film explores issues of love and death with a fascinating alacrity. It makes no bones about its comic book violence, shooting the battles in a playful and entertaining manner with minimal focus on any lingering amount of pain. We still believe the characters are in danger, but as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies there is no real need to demonstrate their danger beyond stylised forms of suggestion.
Several moments in the film really stick in one's mind. Towards the end, Pilgrim is 'killed' by Gideon, the last of the evil exes played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman. He finds himself in some kind of desert, identical to the dream in which he first saw Ramona. He then uses the 'life' he had gained before to replay all the previous events and finally defeat Gideon. Having the exes shatter into piles of coins when defeated is ingenious, as is the spectacle of sound waves forming into two dragons and taking on a giant aural gorilla during the Battle of the Bands.
Despite its large quantities of geeky references to video games and the like, the film gets away with it for the simple reason that it doesn't take itself too seriously. So many other films with video game elements fail as much from being po-faced as they do from being plotless. For all its visual style, Silent Hill is not scary, and for all its seeming intensity, Max Payne is not exciting. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, has an incredible and knowing lightness of touch. It drifts like its central character from one scene to another, paying enough attention to follow what's going on while still finding time to escape into fantasy and have fun.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, with jokes coming so thick and fast that you struggle to keep up or breathe. The humour comes in all shapes and sizes, from physical slapstick to witty one-liners. We have Wallace, Scott's gay roommate, who hits on everyone's boyfriends and can seemingly text Scott's overprotective sister even whilst slipping into unconsciousness. We have Todd, the third evil ex, whose status as an arrogant vegan has given him psychic powers. We have the Japanese twins, who look like a bizarre marriage between Kraftwerk and Siegfried & Roy. And we have all of Scott's embarrassing verbal slip-ups, such as confusing 'love' for 'lesbians' and asking Ramona if she's into drugs.
Jokes like this drift very close to the more putrid adolescent comedies, like National Lampoon's Animal House, Porky's or Superbad. But despite all the moments where we cringe at the characters' actions, Scott Pilgrim is not out to make us wriggle uncomfortably in our seats. The more intimate scenes, including those of Ramona in her underwear, are shot with an underlying sense of respect. The film treats its female characters on a level playing field, not just by demonstrating they can fight as well as the men, but by refusing to fall into the trap of laughing at their misfortune during the break-up scenes.
In the midst of all its belly laughs and eye-popping visuals, Scott Pilgrim is a very tender treatment of young love, demonstrating not just how to get the girl but how to deal with the baggage that goes with all relationships. Both Scott and Ramona have issues with commitment, with the latter admitting that she went through a phase of being a total bitch. And like in Gregory's Girl, there is the faint suggestion that the girl Scott falls for may not be the one he is destined to be with. In the original draft of the screenplay, which preceded the final comics, he ends up with Knives instead.
In defeating the evil exes, Pilgrim is not just standing up to other people's demons but also confronting his own insecurities, and in doing so gaining self-respect. The film genuinely conveys the sense of heartbreak on both sides which comes at the end of a relationship, and it doesn't pretend that our heroes are perfectly compatible and therefore destined to be together. Ramona's changing hair colour and tendency to withdraw at crucial moments both represents the fragile nature of love and encapsulates the modern age of complicated relationships and how hard communication can be, despite (or perhaps because of) new technology.
The performances in Scott Pilgrim are all of a high calibre. Michael Cera, who can be annoying, puts in his best performance since Juno, taking his familiar dweeby character and refining it to make Scott genuinely empathetic rather than simply pitiful. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as Ramona, possessing a sense of mystery while being completely natural and down-to-earth. Kieran Culkin is hilarious as Wallace, and Brandon Routh is very good as Todd, turning in a performance which is a million times more charismatic than his work in Superman Returns.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best films of 2010 and is destined to be a cult classic. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too long and feeling somewhat rough around the edges. It takes time to adjust to its peculiar execution, and I would be hard-pushed to say it was Wright's best film. But as a document of teenage love and insecurity, it is up there with Juno, and is therefore essential viewing for anyone in their early-20s.
As a film enthusiast, you're always looking to be surprised. The more… MoreAs a film enthusiast, you're always looking to be surprised. The more one learns about a given medium or art form, the more one risks falling into cynicism, focussing solely on the conventions and limitations of said form until the only surprises in life are the crushing disappointments. I hinted at this in my review of The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, arguing that sometimes it is best to go in completely cold.
I find myself in a similar predicament with The Ringer. Like Remi Bezanšon's debut from six years ago, there are a lot of aspects to its surface which could cause any sensible film fan to write it off. From any angle it's not a great film, just as you wouldn't expect any of the individuals it showcases to be great athletes. But when given the chance to show what it can do, it is surprising and genuinely touching.
While ostensibly helmed by Barry W. Blaustein, The Ringer is at heart a Farrelly Brothers project. It's shot and constructed in a very similar manner to the Farrellys' own directorial efforts, and nods towards many of the themes and motifs which are explored in the likes of Dumb and Dumber or There's Something About Mary. These include: the lengths to which men go to be with women, how childhood trauma impacts on people in adult life, and the social status of people with disabilities.
It's fitting, albeit in an unfortunate way, that I should be reviewing this film so soon after the tragic death of Rik Mayall. Both Mayall and the Farrellys have aspects of their ouevre which appear outwardly to be puerile, adolescent and stupid - Bottom being the clearest example in the former case. But in both instances, the toilet humour can be regarded as superficial, a way-in for the mainstream to explore issues which would not be raised so aptly in lesser productions.
It is, of course, perfectly easy to view Bottom as just an endless string of knob gags and rude words. But it is just as possible to view it as a modern-day Waiting for Godot, exploring as it does the existential angst of two lonely men with no discernable purpose or special qualities. In the same way, we can write off The Ringer as just another predictable film about an adolescent man-child, hooking up with a woman who's out of his league and being offensive along the way. But beneath this predictable surface, its treatment of issues surrounding disability is admirable, if not reasonably sophisticated.
There are many aspects to The Ringer which are annoyingly predictable. Its characters are painted in broad strokes and feel very one-dimensional, at least for the first 30 minutes. Brian Cox in particular gets very little to work with: we get the set-up of his dirty dealings with the Mob, which explains his slave-driver nature, and he has to spend the rest of the film being sleazy because that's the purpose of his character. The main characters are all archetypes and the film doesn't make a great deal of effort to challenge these archetypes or make them distinctive beyond the talent attached.
The plot of The Ringer is equally formulaic. Because Johnny Knoxville's character is positioned so strongly as the good guy, we know from the start that he's not going to follow through with things. The romance with Katherine Heigl's character is merely an extra incentive to excuse what we know is going to happen. While his final speech about being a cheat is mercifully short - compared to similar speeches in Oscar-bait movies - there is nothing really new being said here.
This formulaic feel is reinforced in Blaustein's direction. We get the inevitable training montages, with first Steve's dad and then his fellow competitors putting him through his paces. It's possible to do these scenes well and make them funny (in A Knight's Tale, for example), but here they feel flat and are edited in an all-too-conventional manner. The awkward conversations between Lynn and 'Jeffy' are framed in tight, off-angle close-ups, just like any teen comedy you care to mention.
The cinematography to The Ringer also has an oddly plastic quality to it which makes aspects of the film seem all the more unbelievable. The film is shot by Mark Irwin, a frequent Farrelly collaborator who began his career shooting some of David Cronenberg's best work. But this is 'plastic reality' in a bad sense: the primary colours look garish, many shots are slightly overexposed, and the sets have a very tacky feel to them.
But in spite of all these problems or shortcomings, there is much about The Ringer which can and should be praised. First and foremost, it handles its central concept (a man pretending to be disabled) with taste and dexterity. In Lars von Trier's The Idiots, people pretended to be disabled in a misjudged and ill-conceived statement of rebellion; we were expected to like Stoffer, who led the movement, but very quickly dismissed him as a pretentious oaf. Here, on the other hand, the filmmakers never condone what Steve is doing, demonstrating the flaws in his father's ableist arguments and using their offensive nature to poke fun at such small-minded attitudes.
While many Hollywood productions would ask their actors to mimic a disability, Blaustein and the Farrellys actually cast actors with the same disabilities as the characters they play. If Spinal Cord Injury Zone is to be believed, there are over 150 actors with intellectual disabilities who have supporting roles in the film. Crucially, the film doesn't draw attention to them or give them special treatment; they're treated like every other actor in the film, and that is just as it should be.
This reflects the central message of The Ringer: that people with disabilities, of whatever kind, are just as capable of leading a normal and successful life as anyone else. Each of the Special Olympic athletes who get a decent amount of screen time are built up as rounded characters, with their own personalities, aspirations, flaws and power structures. Blaustein and the Farrellys deserve a lot of credit for holding their nerve, putting in the hard yards and never using the characters' disability for any kind of cheap, nasty gag.
Knoxville is also a pleasant surprise in the leading role. You'd think that the man behind Jackass might not have the chops to hold our attention beyond the physical set-pieces, let alone charm us. But Knoxville acquits himself well, gradually winning us over and lending at least some credibility to his relationship with an equally decent Heigl. Sure, he's no Robert De Niro, and the script itself isn't great, but as with so much of this film, he's better than we had any right to expect.
The Ringer is a slight but pleasant surprise, taking a premise that could have been deeply misjudged and turning it into something respectful and passingly entertaining. While not a great film by any standards in terms of its storytelling and production qualities, it does handle its subject matter with respect without resorting to high-and-mighty rhetoric. If nothing else, like Animal House before it, it proves that bad taste does not always mean bad quality.
Hollywood has long been criticised for its conservative, money-driven… MoreHollywood has long been criticised for its conservative, money-driven mindset. By prioritising the commercial success of a given venture over its artistic or critical merit, it has produced an inordinate number of bad or mediocre films over its long history, which exist purely because the numbers add up on a balance sheet. It's a fallacy that if loads of people see a film then it must be good, but Hollywood has played upon this fallacy for decades.
We are living in a period in which this continual promotion of mediocrity is reaching absurd and aggresive levels. But it is foolish to believe that it is only a recent phenomenon; rather, it is something seemingly inherent within the Hollywood model of filmmaking. All of which brings us to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which manages to be longer, duller and more episodic that its already disappointing predecessor.
At this juncture, it may be perfectly natural for you to accuse me of dismissing the film on the grounds of its reputation. Chamber of Secrets was created by the same people who made Philosopher's Stone, with principal photography starting merely three days after the latter had been released. It retains the same cast and largely the same crew, is produced by the same studio, and is still very much a product of Chris Columbus' imagination, or lack thereof.
But despite my feelings about Columbus as a director (which I have already discussed at great length), I actually believe that this film had a chance of being better - nay, should be better - than its predecessor. Having spent so long in the first film trying to set up all the different concepts surrounding Hogwarts and the world of wizards, we should now be able to go deeper into the characters without having to worry about all the jargon. While new ideas are still introduced throughout The Two Towers and The Return of the King, they do not faze us because we accept the rules of the universe from which these ideas come forth, based upon the knowledge we garnered from The Fellowship of the Ring.
Chamber of Secrets does have a number of interesting ideas buried in it, many of which foreshadow later developments in the franchise. Where Philosopher's Stone focussed on the threat posed specifically to Harry, the threat in Chamber of Secrets is much more all-encompassing, with the whole of Hogwarts at the mercy of some insidious, inexplicable evil. In the right hands, this film could have made more of the idea of Harry's special nature and how that places the people he cares for in increasing amounts of danger.
This film is also significant for introducing the concept of horcruxes, items which contain a fragment of Lord Voldemort's soul, through which he can live forever (unless they are destroyed). It's an idea that has a great deal of precedent in fiction, from Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings to the Necronomicon in The Evil Dead, which causes Deadites to rise up when its passages are chanted.
In whatever form it comes, the idea is an appealing one because it gives us a blend of tangible and intangible evil - a physical object which is either inherently evil or evil by association with a purely supernatural force or being. It raises all kinds of questions about the way that evil manifests itself, how temptation works, and how we should approach evil in our quest for good. At the very least, it's an interesting McGuffin which should serve as the basis for a compelling fantasy adventure.
Unfortunately, just like its predecessor, Chamber of Secrets is a film which could and should have been a lot better than it is. And once again it's Columbus' overly faithful, almost literal approach to the material which lets the film down, turning what should have been a gripping, creepy adventure story into a pedestrian, episodic and frankly tedious outing. For all the criticisms that fans might have about the later films' decisions regarding adaptation, the fact remains that this is not by any definition a good example of cinematic storytelling.
Many of the problems with Chamber of Secrets amount to the same flaws that plagued Philosopher's Stone being present for much more screen time. Because there is more plot to deal with this time around, we get a lot more scenes of lazy and confusing exposition in the corridors of Hogwarts. The scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione discussing what is going on and plotting what to do next are all shot in the same fashion, with extremely similar pacing, camera movements and marks for the actors. Because it's hard to tell one from the next, we assume that we could watch them in any order and it wouldn't make a difference.
Likewise, the big magical set-pieces still feel like conscious intrusions on the plot rather than integral parts of it. The quiddich match may have a visually impressive chase in it between Harry and Draco Malfoy, but Columbus lets it go on much longer than it needs to: it simply isn't that important to the plot to warrant so much screen time, but Columbus indulges himself because that's what's in the book. Equally, the scene with Aragog the giant spider may be creepy on some level, but it's only a moment of terror rather than an incremental step towards a memorable climax.
Both of these elements together contrive to make Chamber of Secrets feel incredibly episodic. As before, Columbus' camera is chasing after the material in every shot, having seemingly no idea where the story is heading beyond the beginning and end of a given scene. You simply don't get the sense that Columbus knew what the focus should be and how to shape the film accordingly. Instead various plot elements move in and out of our attention for the best part of three long hours, and after a handful of special effects the film stops in a thorougly uncathartic place.
In all of these respects, Chamber of Secrets seems like the dictionary definition of 'more of the same'. This broadly extends to the visual sensibility: while there are more visually darker scenes and a number of obviously Gothic touches, the film retains the safe-Dickensian feel of its predecessor and is still pushing for a family audience in spite of all the creepy moments. There are even moments where you'd swear the sets for Philosopher's Stone had been reused to create a different setting this time, with the Chamber of Secrets itself looking remarkably like the wizards' chess board in the first film.
If Chamber of Secrets was just 'more of the same', it would not automatically warrant a lower score than the first film. What tips this over into being the worst Harry Potter film is the lack of logic in many of its climactic scenes. We're used to adventure stories which have one deus ex machina, and can just about tolerate it if it's used in a sophisticated way. But this film tests our patience by giving us numerous anticlimaxes, in which a difficult situation is dealt with in a manner which is either too straightforward or downright perplexing.
Some of these instances are caused by a contrived coincidence, such as Gilderoy Lockhart casting a spell with Ron's broken wand, causing it to backfire and bury him under rubble. Others give characters powers that were never explained beforehand and are not referenced again, such as Dobby preventing Lucius Malfoy from harming Harry after the former has been freed. Others still find the film simply pulling a solution out of thin air because it needs our hero to succeed, such as a sword magically appearing in the sorting hat so that Harry can kill the basilisk. Each of these examples on their own are disappointing, but the more they keep coming the less confidence and interest we have in the resolution of the story.
As before, the saving grace with Chamber of Secrets is the cast, who do a generally decent job with material that has not been properly shaped for the screen. Emma Watson deserves special credit for her performance as Hermione: she does her best with the reams of exposition and makes the character less of a grating goody-goody than before. Kenneth Branagh is underused as Lockhart but he does occasionally get the chance to prove his acting chops in amongst all the goofy humour. And Richard Harris acquits himself well as Dumbledore, in what would prove to be his final performance.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a step down from the first film, being longer, more episodic and altogether less engaging. All the problems which dogged the first instalment are present in greater form here, and Columbus' uninspired approach to the material is likely to please existing fans a great deal more than any newcomers. While it's not quite awful, it remains the weakest of all the Harry Potter films, and provides a good case for all the changes that came with Prisoner of Azkaban.
When a film series has achieved international recognition and enjoyed… MoreWhen a film series has achieved international recognition and enjoyed enormous commercial success, it becomes very easy to believe that its eventual standard was replicated throughout its history. The appeal of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond is so widely spread throughout our culture that the individual films begin to blend into a single entity; the notion of Star Wars as a very good thing makes us forget the shortcomings of the individual films.
As with each of these examples, it simply isn't the case that the Harry Potter series has always been of the highest quality. For all the praise it has garnered, especially for its impact on the British film industry, the series had a very shaky start. Watching The Philosopher's Stone now, there are times when it is hard to believe that we ever got as far as the seventh book being split into two lucrative parts. While it comes with the very best intentions, it is decidedly ill-disciplined and unengaging compared to later instalments.
The roots of this problem lie in the choice of director. J. K. Rowling's original choice had been Terry Gilliam, who was then coming off the back of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam's vision for the film was ambitious and every bit as fantastical as his work on Brazil, but the studio opted for Chris Columbus following the director's two-hour pitch to executives. Columbus' track record with family-friendly hits like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire went down much easier than Gilliam's history of quarelling with studios and his multiple (but undeserved) box office failures.
This decision, taken before any of the film had been shot, shapes the entirety of both The Philosopher's Stone and its sequel. It's the classic example of a studio playing it safe, putting a potentially lucrative property in a safe pair of hands, who will in turn deliver something which will offend the least amount of people and thereby create the widest possible market. Columbus' directorial style is an accountants' dream, and the worst nightmare of anyone who cares about proper fantasy filmmaking.
In my review of Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief, I spoke about Columbus' conservative approach to the source material and how this hurt the finished project. In both cases, he opted to stay extremely faithful to the original novels, personally going through the script with Rowling to ensure that all the minor details were intact. While attention to detail is always welcome, with Columbus it manifests itself in literally putting the page on screen, in a manner which makes the whole experience much less cinematic than it could have been.
There is evidence of this throughout The Philosopher's Stone, particularly in the many long scenes with our three main characters in the corridors of Hogwarts. These scenes feel for all the world like the actors were reading their lines directly from the book, without the adjustments being made for the visual language of cinema. Not only are these scenes a lot longer and more expository than they need to be, but they give the sense of a film crew fighting against the material; the camera chases after the story, rather than grabbing it by the scruff of the neck like a proper adaptation would.
Because the talky scenes feel so much like readings from the novel, the film doesn't flow especially well. All the more action-based scenes, like the quidditch match, the broomstick lessons or the wizard's chess scene near the end, feel like set-pieces which have wandered into what otherwise resembles a recital rather than a film. And because the dialogue is often flat, these scenes don't carry the weight they they need to carry; rather than building up to, say, the chess game, it comes out of nowhere and feels like a distraction.
By attempting to cram in every last detail of the book, Columbus has committed the ironic sin of gradually alienating a mainstream audience. While fans of the book may be impressed by how faithfully certain scenes are replicated, this approach results in a film which is altogether too long and too leisurely paced. With The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson sought to be as faithful as possible to J. R. R. Tolkien's work while acknowledging the need to keep the plot moving and make changes to keep casual fans interested. Columbus has neither the skill nor seemingly the desire to pull this off, appearing to settle for dramatic longeurs to avoid upsetting fans of the book.
One could argue that this film has to be slower than those that followed it, because it has to introduce and explain so many different aspects of the world of wizards. But at the time of its release, there was never a guarantee that the series would run its course: not all the books had been written, and the studio took a big chance on the three young actors - probably the biggest chance they took on the whole production. The Fellowship of the Ring may be the gentlest instalment in Jackson's trilogy, and it does have to set up a lot of things, but it's still a rivetting thrill ride whose dynamism pulls all its interesting ideas and themes to the fore.
Columbus' conservatism is also present in the visual sensibility. When pitching the film, he claimed that he wanted to make the scenes in the muggle world "bleak and dreary" while those in the wizard world would be "steeped in colour, mood and detail." He referenced David Lean's work on Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in his chosen cinematography, while comparing the colour palettes to those in Oliver! and The Godfather.
The thing is, you would never garner any of this from actually watching The Philosopher's Stone. The scenes in the muggle world look like a dodgy American take on what a typical British household might look like: for all the charm of the late Richard Griffiths, it still feels too chocolate-box to cut the mustard. While the film does have a loosely Dickensian feel, it is not the Dickens of Lean, with its bleak shadows, striking expressionist angles and emphasis on social inequality. It is instead the Dickens of many American versions of A Christmas Carol, in which all the edges have been taken off and even the least fortunate people look like they've been well-fed for years.
This overly cosy sensibility means that many of the darker or more gruesome qualities in the story aren't allowed to have that great an impact. Some of the CG effects are pretty good, such as the sorting hat or putting the face of Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirrell's head. But when they're being presented in the context of scenes filled with warm candles and goofy jokes, they either feel like bizarre intrusions or come across as silly and unthreatening. The film plays up the sentimental aspects of the book far too much, especially in the mirror scene with Voldemort and the bedside chat between Harry and Dumbledore.
In the midst of all this disappointing mediocrity, there are a number of aspects to The Philosopher's Stone which are enjoyable, either on their own terms or within the context of the overall story. The series' biggest asset from the beginning has been its cast, with each of the three main child actors finding their feet reasonably quickly. There are some obstacles in their way, with Hermione being far more irritating than she is in the later films, but the actors feel settled in their parts and at home in front of the camera.
The adult cast are equally appealing, for a variety of different reasons. Alan Rickman was simply born to play Severus Snape: resisting the urge to turn in another Hollywood villain performance, he instead uses his unusual delivery to keep surprising you about the character. Richard Harris is very capable as Dumbledore, as is John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander: while both parts are essentially exposition with extra dollops of whimsy, both actors manage to bring some kind of weight to their dialogue. The only weak link in the adult cast is Ian Hart: while his Quirrell is convincing (if annoying), he simply isn't intimidating enough as Voldemort.
The film is also pretty funny, perhaps because we have such a strong bond with the cast in the the first place. The running gags about Hagrid breaking things and telling people things he shouldn't have done are funny throughout, as are all the bad things that befall Neville Longbottom over the course of the story. The humour is played very broadly, with much of it being set up a little too obviously, but for the most part it still feels genuine in its delivery.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a mediocre first offering in the then-fledgling franchise. Despite having a strong cast and quite a lot of entertaining humour, it's ultimately far too cautious and literal an adaptation to pass muster as a properly cinematic outing. Its flaws become all the more painfully obvious as the series grows and develops, making all its decisions to play safe seem utterly ridiculous in hindsight. While not the worst instalment in the series, it's hardly the start that we wanted or deserved.
Back in April I wrote an article for WhatCulture! about the career of… MoreBack in April I wrote an article for WhatCulture! about the career of Jennifer Connelly to mark the release of this film. In a section covering Requiem for a Dream (which remains her finest performance), I said that the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, "likes to mess with your head. His films are hugely ambitious, visually extravagant, narratively complex and often push the boundaries of what an audience can stand, in terms of taste or style of storytelling."
Though I wrote these words before seeing Noah, they are an apt way of describing my feelings towards the film. It's impossible to just dismiss it as a bloated, overblown folly, since there are a number of interesting ideas in there which are approached intelligently. Equally, calling it a masterpiece of any kind is far too generous, since the film is riddled with faults, particularly in its second half. In the end, all you can say about Noah is this: it is a flawed but fascinating epic, whose many shortcomings make its successes all the more intriguing.
Before we begin to analyse it, we should probably address the controversy that the film has created among religious communities. There are opinions on both sides within both the Christian and Jewish faiths, with responses ranging from the film being a valuable document of an important story to a Kabbalistic tract which doesn't even mention the Creator as being God. Perhaps the most measured response is that of Justin Welby, the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, who described it as "interesting and thought-provoking" - an ambiguous and typically Anglican turn of phrase, designed to avoid or mitigate this kind of controversy.
It is, frankly, both foolish and narrow-minded to view Noah purely in terms of its relationship to the Biblical story - in other words, to reject it outright if it doesn't literally correspond to our accepted version. The account in Genesis is relativel yshort and has a lot of gaps in the story where time passes - gaps that have to be explained if an audience will continue to suspend their disbelief. There have been animated treatments of this story in short form, both humourous (Disney's Silly Symphonies) and serious (the BBC's brilliant Testament series), but to make it work as a feature film, the story simply has to be expanded. The language of Hollywood is different to the language of the Bible; in order for us to get anywhere, there have to be concessions.
To try and address this problem, Aronofsky bring in elements of other creation or flood stories, particularly those from the Gnostic or Mystical elements of the Jewish tradition. It is from this that we derive the fallen angels or Watchers (spiritual beings imprisoned in rock), the serpent's skin having magical properties, and the idea of Adam and Eve only gaining a recongisable physical form after eating the forbidden fruit.
Aronofsky's main reason for this - aside from an interest in Kabbalah present in his other works - is to address some of the logistical and technical questions that a modern audience may have about the story. For example, the Watchers provide an explanation as to how the Ark was able to be built in what seems a short space of time, and the descendents of Cain (led by Ray Winstone's character) give things an extra sense of urgency. For viewers who haven't grown up with faith or regard the concept as somehow anti-intellectual, such explanations are welcome even if they're not always completely believable.
You have to admire what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah. On the one hand, he is attempting to bring the Biblical epic into the 21st century, explaining for modern audiences what previous generations may have taken for granted. On the other hand, he tries to address the story in humanistic or even atheistic terms, telling the story of Noah as that of a man suffering delusions and uncertain over what his awful visions mean. Trying to tell a Christian story in a 'post-Christian' world can be a tall order at the best of times, but trying to combine it with an alternative interpretation of the same story is really challenging. Aronofsky is trying to pull together multiple versions and interpretations of the story of Noah to try and find a common, greater truth in among the details - a task that is by no means easy and which is highly commendable.
To this end, Noah is filled with some truly fantastic and striking imagery. The CGI is impressive on a general level, with Industrial Light and Magic giving the Watchers a real physicality and bringing a forest convincingly to life out of nowhere. But the most impressive sections are Noah's visions, in which he images his feet sinking into the blood-soaked earth, then finds himself underwater drowning in a sea brimming with corpses. At times the film is truly terrifying, and its nightmarish feel is a welcome change from the more fresh-faced, sanitised versions of the story.
Up until the battle for the Ark, Noah is a very interesting if bizarre portrait of a man following his faith, in a manner which is somewhat condusive to the Biblical story. There are some silly moments in this section (such as Anthony Hopkins' performance as Methusalah) but it is a well-written drama, whose characters have believable and complex motivations, and in which the role of God is left open to interpretation. Much of this is made possible through Connelly, who gives a great performance as Noah's wife Naameh.
But once the battle happens and the Ark 'sets sail', the film slowly begins to unravel and becomes steadily more indulgent. Once the action is solely confined to the boat, the film begins to plod, as if it was searching around for something interesting or shocking to do in order to fill the many days and nights. Because there is less sense of momentum, all the plot points that are introduced feel jarring and awkward, and the film slowly becomes less interesting and less believable.
The two biggest missteps that the film makes are epitomised by its central male performances. On the one hand, having Winstone's character stow away on the Ark rests on a massive contrivance: if he had really hacked his way in like that, chances are that the whole thing would have sunk. This in itself could have worked, providing tension and surprise, but instead the character becomes a lazy cipher for all the evils in Man, and Logan Lerman isn't skilled enough either to hold his own against Winstone or to make his decisions that result from his presence seem believable.
On the other hand, Noah himself undergoes a jarring shift from man of faith to psychopath in under 20 minutes. It's all very well showing Noah as having survivor guilt and wondering whether he has done the right thing - all of that is believable and interesting. But to suddenly have your main protagonist turn around and say that everyone he was worked hard to save should be killed, including his own children, is a huge betrayal of trust.
There's nothing wrong with having Noah as a morally ambiguous protagonist, who may tip over into darkness and despair but is compelling in the way he behaves and the decisions that he makes. But Aronofsky's Noah doesn't do this. Instead, it presents him as a good man with good intentions, who is doing the right thing in building the Ark, and then out of nothing decides to makes him a monster. Having worked so hard to make Noah so appealingly ambiguous, Aronofsky plants his flag in the sand and compromies the whole project. Even if do you buy the character development, the conflict that results is so dragged out that it becomes difficult to sit through.
Noah also fails to address other problems or discrepancies with this story. We might buy into the explanation of how the animals are put to sleep, but the death of one animal is glossed over without giving us an idea of how the new creation's nature is permanently altered by its absence. The film tries to shed light on the rejection of Ham by giving said character more agency, but ultimately its explanation isn't dramatically satisfying. Finally, with the flood now gone, it leaves us with no idea - well, no comfortable ideas - of how the human race will repopulate itself from just two baby girls. Having done the legwork to explain things in the first half, moments like this are inexcusably lazy.
Noah is an admirable yet ridiculous epic, a film that can neither be entirely dismissed nor unconditionally embraced. Aronofsky's ambitions for the story are very interesting, and taken on a visual level alone the film is quite extraordinary. But it's ultimately hobbled by several poor narrative decisions and a feeling of needless, growing indulgence. In the end it's neither a triumph nor a tragedy, balancing, like the Ark on Ararat, somewhere in the middle.