When cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that… MoreWhen cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that result often look appealing but lack the substance or storytelling skill of the films which they only helped to shoot. The career of Dutchman Jan de Bont is a classic case in point. As a cinematographer, de Bont lensed some of Paul Verhoeven's finest work, including Keetje Tippel and The Fourth Man, as well as lending his considerable expertise to the likes of Die Hard and Black Rain. With the exception of Speed, his directorial career has been poor, from the largely underwhelming Twister to his totally brainless remake of The Haunting.
It's a very similar story with Cradle 2 the Grave, directed by Polish cinematographer Andrezj Bartkowiak. His reputation within the industry is not as high as de Bont's, with his credits ranging from the engaging Prizzi's Honour to the risible A Stranger Among Us. But compared to the heights of his work in his original trade, this is a disappointingly unremarkable venture which fails to tell an entirely engaging story and doesn't make the most of Jet Li's talent.
In my now-ancient review of Westworld, I talked about the way that films directed by novelists often fall flat because they lack an understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. The issue, I said, was that writers "are so attentive to verbal content that they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema." With cinematographers, it is to some extent the other way around: they understand how to light and assemble a shot so that it looks gripping or intriguing, but they can't string these shots together to serve a story. Often, as in this case, the story isn't distrinctive enough to merit all their visual labours.
In terms of its plot, Cradle 2 the Grave is pure meat and potatoes. It is a nuts-and-bolts action thriller with a heist at its centre, whose plot involves rival criminals coming together to face off a bigger threat. The supposed drama comes from the different attitudes and approaches of the characters, along with the conflict of being forced to work together. After a few minor skirmishes, including some kind of chase or other set-piece, the different groups finally agree to work together and everything builds up to the final showdown. That has been the template for hundreds of films, particularly since the likes of Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop.
There's nothing inherently wrong with making a film within clearly defined narrative parameters, or with taking a genre which seems as old as dirt and trying to bring something new to it. Inception worked brilliantly because Christopher Nolan intrinsically understood the mechanics of the heist film; he know where he wanted to push the envelope, and he knew the means by which to achieve this. The point is, if you are going to make a genre film and don't have the talent to reinvent the wheel, you need to have sufficient skill or verve to put your own stamp on it.
The single biggest problem with Cradle 2 the Grave is that it is unremarkable to the point of being tedious. With the exception of one scene (which we'll come onto that later), there really isn't a single shot that you can identify as being unique or distinctive to the director. Bartkowiak is, with the best will in the world, a hack: he can put scenes together efficiently and compently, but he doesn't bring any energy or commitment to the overall project. He's not an utterly talentless hack, in the manner of Brett Ratner or Michael Bay - people who often can't even assemble a shot properly, let alone tell a story. But this film has no creative stamp at all, nothing to indicate that it was anything more than another day at the office.
To be fair to Bartkowiak and to the performers, a lot of the blame for Cradle 2 the Grave's nature lies just as much with the script. Channing Gibson, who developed the screenplay from John O'Brien's story, is at heart a TV writer, best known for his work on St. Elsewhere. Whatever he managed to bring to that series, his film scripts are incredibly formulaic and the dialogue is both unmemorable and unoriginal. His other credits, Lethal Weapon 4 and the remake of Walking Tall, are ample evidence of this.
The film is so much a product of the 1980s that it's a wonder why Bartkowiak didn't simply recruit the like of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone for the main roles. There's no inherent reason for DMX and Jet Li to be in this film: their characters are so generic and stereotypical that there's no reason for them to be of Black or Asian descent. The sub-plot involving the kidnapping of the protagonist's daughter was old hat even before Commando came along, and the film does nothing new or interesting with the buddy movie formula. Even the final showdown between Su and Ling, which is built up to quite a large degree, is very close to the final fight in Lethal Weapon (and makes about as little sense).
As for the performers themselves, they're all completely unremarkable. DMX joins the long list of musicians in general, and rappers in particular, who have a total inability to act. He's neither as obnoxiously annoying as Vanilla Ice in Cool As Ice, nor as goofily hammy as Ice Cube in Ghosts of Mars. Like many musicians who attempt to transition into acting, you never get the sense of him playing a character; he's just posing on screen as himself, as if he was too worried that if he actually gave a performance, people might forget who he was.
Other members of the cast are equally disappointing. Gabrielle Union gave a really good performance in Bring It On three years earlier, but here she has too little to work with and the scenes where she has to play the sexy role are clunky and exploitative. Anthony Anderson was fine in Romeo Must Die (also directed by Bartkowiak), but in this film he's relegated to a more comic background character, playing the sort of role once filled by the late John Candy. Most disappointing of all is Jet Li, who was fantastic in Hero just before this was filmed. While Li has never been Jackie Chan in terms of charisma, Zhang Zimou clearly knew how to channel his talents in a way that Bartkowiak never manages. As a result he's reduced to the 'wise, all-knowing Oriental' stereotype indelibly associated with Pat Morita.
All of this would be possible to tolerate if the action scenes were in any way gripping or memorable. But once again, the film settles for the ordinary (and boring), either acknowledging the fact that it's completely disposable or simply lacking the willpower to make a case for itself. The martial arts sequences are functional, and you can at least see a lot of the choreography play out since these scenes are paced and edited properly. But the chase sequences and the motorcycle jumps are generally uninspired, being a lot less exciting than the bike-based climax of Mission: Impossible II.
When John Carpenter was in his prime, one thing which always set his work apart was its visual style. Even though he was often working on very low budgets, his knowledge of camera angles, faith in special effects and use of anamorphic lenses made his films look like they were made for a great deal more money. Cradle 2 the Grave cost around $28m - around the same as Ghosts of Mars when adjusted for inflation - and yet it looks much cheaper than that in places. Daryn Okada may have lensed Stick It and Mean Girls, but here his angles are unengaging and much of the film looked needlessly washed-out.
The only truly memorable scene in Cradle 2 the Grave involves the death of Ling. Having been forced to swallow a capsule containing synthetic plutonium - our McGuffin for the evening - we see Ling convulse and hoarsely scream as his throat and face are burned into nothingness. The special effects are pretty memorable, falling somewhere between the cancer gun scene in Videodrome and the scene in Return of the Jedi where Han Solo is released from the carbonite. It may be gratuitous and over-the-top, but after all the predictable fodder that has gone before, it's arguably the best scene in the film.
Cradle 2 the Grave is as nuts and bolts as they come, filling 101 minutes with nothing in particular. Its story and execution are functional at best and derivative at worst, and most of the main performances are uninspired. But it serves its purpose as a disposable action film and is by no means the worst cinematic vehicle for a rapper that we've seen. It won't send you to the grave to see it, but you certainly won't be shouting about it afterwards.
Like any kind of biographical project, rock documentaries have the… MoreLike any kind of biographical project, rock documentaries have the potential to be nothing more than exercises in ego inflation. When The Who's first film, The Kids Are Alright was released, Roger Daltrey sold it on the basis that it made the band look like "complete idiots", commenting that The Song Remains The Same was made "for the sole purpose of making Robert Plant's dick look big."
Amazing Journey is a natural companion to The Kids Are Alright, covering much of the same ground in a more detailed and serene manner, as well as providing some much-needed coverage of the band's activity after the death of Keith Moon. It is the weaker and less engaging of the two films, but newcomers to the band will find much that is engrossing or entertaining, while existing fans can revel in all the new footage on offer.
When making a documentary about a famous band, it would be very easy to just regurgitate all the most famous anecdotes, intercut with their greatest hits. And considering all the things Keith Moon did in his life, you could have filled up the two hours with an exhaustive list of every last prank. But Amazing Journey rarely falls into this trap, and when it does approach stories of cars being driven into swimming pools or drum kits being blown up, it makes some effort to clarify the facts rather than just revelling in the myth.
The film is very well-researched, drawing on a variety of sources to tell the story of The Who. Alongside a series of interviews with surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, there is footage of the band's TV appearances, live performances at Charlton and Kilburn (which featured in The Kids Are Alright), and various clips from their promotional videos and forays into filmmaking. In certain sections animation is employed - for instance, the cover art of A Quick One is animated while Townshend's mini-opera is discussed.
The most interesting section of the film, for both fans and newcomers, is the opening section up until the arrival of Keith Moon in early-1964. This section explores the genesis of The Who's unique sound, describing the musical landscape of 1950s Britain and the young musicians' relationship with London skiffle and American blues. It may be a cliché to describe life in 1950s Britain as being in black-and-white, and to set the scene by showing footage of bombed buildings. But through this section you come to understand the band's initial fire and fury, and how much of their music was a reaction against 1950s culture, both musically and socially.
One of the coups of the film is the 8 minutes of footage of the band, then called The High Numbers, performing at the Railway Hotel in London in 1964. This footage is interesting both for its rarity and for capturing the band on the brink of finding their own sound and thereafter success. Daltrey is still singing blues covers in a style somewhere between Lonnie Donnegan and John Lee Hooker, but all the other ingredients are beginning to come through: Moon's exuberant drumming, Townshend's jagged power chords and John Entwistle's complex, jazzy bass lines.
Amazing Journey is far from a po-faced affair, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to keep us entertained. It's hard not to chuckle when John Entwistle likens their label-mate Jimmy Hendrix, or Pete Townshend impersonates the Beach Boys with equal amounts of playfulness and vitriol. And then there is the montage of Moon's various incarnations, ranging from a pirate to an SS officer and a Dickensian money-keeper.
There is also a lot of self-deprecation on the part of Townshend and Daltrey. While the former occasionally covers himself in glory, describing himself as "on the edge of things" and calling Quadrophenia "magnificent" (which it is), Daltrey is much more understated and welcoming. His posture throughout interviews is downbeat, frequently holding his hands near his face and at points being close to tears. He's not asking for sympathy, but nor is he reigning himself in to play to his stereotype of being the band's hard man.
This sense of self-deprecation helps to partially mitigate one of the problems of Amazing Journey, namely the chumminess of its outside contributors. The film features contributions from The Edge, Noel Gallagher, Eddie Vedder and Sting, all of whom makes no bones about their adulation of the band and its influence on their own music. Some of them have direct connections with the band - Sting played the Ace Face in Quadrophenia and Gallagher performed with them in 2000. But for all The Edge's knowledge of 1960s music, he doesn't have a lot to contribute, and Vedder frequently resorts to platitude to praise his heroes.
There are other problems too. Firstly, there is the question of whether or not it is cinematic; the film had a very short theatrical release before being released as a 2-disc DVD set. It may be a consequence of seeing the same clips being endlessly repeated in TV documentaries, but portions of Amazing Journey do feel like they are more at home on the small screen. The directors use an interesting device to get around this, namely structuring the film like a double album; the film stops to turn the record over, and the footage occasionally skips and distorts like sound on a scratched LP. But about halfway through this device is phased out and the niggling feeling remains in your mind.
From a fan's point of view, the film does begin to canter through the history after 1975. It treats the later works and the gaps between reunions rather more brusquely, when in fact there is some interest in exploring the various behaviours of the band outside The Who. We get a mention of Moon's drunken exploits in 1974, but it completely glosses over his fledging film career and the band's various solo efforts. You can understand the filmmakers wanting to keep the running time down, and the need for the film to play to a mainstream audience, but long-time fans of the band will still feel like this was a missed opportunity.
The overarching problem with Amazing Journey, however, is that it is a little too civilised for its own good. It doesn't have the raw, shambolic energy of The Kids Are Alright, so that even in the bits which are laugh-out-loud funny, or which feature Townshend being outrageous, it feels a little too reigned in to properly capture the atmosphere of the band. There is an argument for shooting in a more serene style, since some of the band's energy has waned and both surviving members are a lot older and wiser. But the recent footage of the band touring Endless Wire throws the former claim into question, so that while the film is engrossing it is also frustrating.
Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is a well-made and informative attempt to catalogue the highs and lows of one of the world's greatest rock bands. The sheer amount of archive material gives it a comprehensive feel, and as an introduction to the band it is very accessible and entertaining. But long-time fans of the band may be disappointed in places, both in the lack of coverage post-1982 and in the calmer style of presentation. It's good but not great, and definitely not The Kids Are Alright.
The final instalment in a film franchise often comes to define the… MoreThe final instalment in a film franchise often comes to define the franchise as a whole. The Return of the King cementedPeter Jackson's reputation as an extraordinary fantasy filmmaker who moved the goalposts for both cinematic technology and fantasy storytelling. Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness and Spider-Man 3 both saw the wheels come off, with Sam Raimi throwing everything he had at the screen to disguise the fact that he had run out of ideas.
With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, we already had a fair idea of where we were heading, if not by the end of Part 1, then by the ending of Half-Blood Prince. Coming in somewhere between the dizzying heights of Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and the disappointing lows of Chris Columbus, David Yates' instalments have had a lot going for them on a thematic or tonal level, but have also been hobbled by too much plot and a lack of weight in some of the main developments. Considering where the series began, the film is a triumph; considering where it could have ended up, the joy is much more muted.
Much like The Return of the King, much of Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is concerned with the characters' relationship with death. Even moreso than in the previous instalment, the characters find themselves in an endgame, where they are fighting against a seemingly inevitable outcome. Voldemort has never been as chillingly scary as Sauron, but in this film his desperation and panic over dying makes him more threatening. There are still times when Ralph Fiennes over-eggs it, but a lot of Voldemort's childlike fears of death and mortality are finally brought to the fore.
How precisely the film deals with death is quite a conflicted matter. As in the previous instalment, there is the seeming need for a lot of characters to be killed off simply as a means of ending their character arcs. Bellatrix Lestrange's demise is dealt with far too quickly to be satisfying, while more lovable characters like Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks don't get the screen time they deserve to make the appearance of their dead bodies carry meaning. Having invested so much in many of these characters, dispatching them so fleetingly - even in a war - is a bit of a kick in the teeth.
To put it bluntly, Deathly Hallows - Part 2 attempts to strike the same kind of balance that Jackson sought in The Return of the King, but is only partially successful in doing so. On the one hand, it acknowledges the need to show the scale of the war and the extent of the atrocities taking place; it's happy, in other words, to give us the Potter equivalent of the Battle of the Pellanor Fields. On the other hand, it seeks to be reflective and introspective, bringing the conflict down to the level of Harry's conscience and his final connection to Voldemort.
Given Yates' dodgy track record with action set pieces, it's no surprise that the Battle of Hogwarts' treatment of death is the weaker of the two approaches. The special effects are all fine - you won't find the same wretched over-abundance of CGI that you'd find in the Star Wars prequels. But while Jackson's battles had pacing and structure, with clearly defined yet unpredictable movements, the Battle for Hogwarts moves in fits and starts and isn't all that memorable. Yates tries to include as many of the little moments from the books as he can, but he struggles to link them all together. If the Battle of the Pellanor Fields is like a Wagner opera - big, bold, brash and often breathtaking - this is more like a high school violin recital: still impressive in places, but timid by comparison.
In its more candidly introspective moments, however, the film takes flight and we find ourselves bonding with Harry a lot more than we would if he was solely in the heat of battle. Both the dream sequence in Kings Cross Station and the all-too brief sequence with the Resurrection Stone give the film the space it needs to breathe, reminding us of the emotional baggage which Harry carries and why he is fighting in the first place. It's to the credit of Yates and his colleagues that such scenes are allowed to take up so much time, when in a standalone or franchise-launching blockbuster, they would be lying on the cutting room floor.
The visual bleakness which Yates strove for in Part 1 is reinforced strongly here. The entire Kings Cross Station sequence borrows heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, using white light in a way that is intrusive but also comforting in the context of the action that surrounds it. The whole colour palette is more washed out, with the blues and blacks of the Hogwarts uniforms appearing dusty and battered even before the battle has started. This at least gives a semblance of tonal consistency, linking the battles and quiet moments together quite well.
The other big highlight of the film is the revelations regarding Snape. This is one aspect of the series in which what might be called 'the long tease' has worked: we have been held in suspense successfully for seven films, still unsure as to who Snape really is or where his loyalties lie. The revelations are powerful and moving in their own right, but Yates plays a clever trick by letting them unfold as memories. By using visual images, such as the flower unfolding in Lily's hand, he avoids it just being another exposition dump, and allows Alan Rickman the space he needs for Snape's death to matter.
Much of the film, of course, is still concerned with the hunt for the horcruxes, which give the first part a sense of structure and progress that it desperately needed. There's a very nice sequence right at the beginning where Hermione has to pretend to be Belatrix in order to enter her vault at Gringotts and take Helga Hufflepuff's cup (a suspected horcrux). Helena Bonham Carter demonstrates her acting chops in this scene, not just playing another version of the character but adopting Emma Watson's mannerisms and vocal tics perfectly. The scene is slightly spoiled by Harry's use of the imperius curse, but we can let that slide.
Unlike the last film, however, the search for the horcruxes seems less essential as Part 2 rolls forward. This is partially deliberate, since the horcruxes in themselves are a plot device rather than an end point, but it's also an admission on the part of the filmmakers that people are only really interested in Harry and Voldemort's confrontation. The progress from one horcrux to another is still entertaining, particularly Harry's self-sacrifice to Voldemort in the woods. But being the last film in the series, we still grow impatient for things to get to the point.
Having finally reached that point, the film has some difficult decisions to make. The final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort has to do a lot of things to pass muster. It has to be visually impressive, giving casual fans who aren't encrossed in the mythology an indication of its significance. It has to capture the different attitudes of the characters towards death, contrasting Voldemort's self-hatred and fear with Harry's more philosophical approach. And it has to last long enough to make it seem like a big deal, but short enough to so that it doesn't drag, as happened with the 'climactic' lightsabre duel in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.
Given the expectations of both fans of the books and people who have followed the films, it's inevitable that there would be some degree of disappointment. But the final showdown comes up short in all three parts, albeit by not quite enough to completely derail it. It's less visually impressive than the duel at the end of Goblet of Fire, and a little less threatening in places. The subtext is there if you look for it, but Yates is often too absorbed in trying to make wands a threatening weapon to bring it out in the build-up. And while it is better directed than George Lucas' lightsabre battles, it's ultimately too static and straightforward, giving the impression that it goes on longer than it does.
To an extent, the final duel sums up the film, taking characters which we have followed and seen develop, and putting them in situations which are somewhat underwhelming in terms of how they use said characters. Before the oh-so-controversial epilogue - a whole lot of fuss about nothing - we get one last example of this, where Harry decides to destroy the Elder Wand. This is more decisive and logical than the book (in which he simply buries it), but the film misses out on the chance to explore this dilemma in more detail, just as Harry's relationship with power was explored in Half-Blood Prince. We're not expecting moral quanderies along the lines of Genesis of the Daleks or even The Empire Strikes Back, but even a little something would have been nice.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is a partially successful means to bring the curtain down on one of cinema's most enduring sagas. The cast are generally good as always, and David Yates deserves some credit for having so much introspection in amongst the bombast of battle. It's a flawed beast, like all the Potter films, letting us down in many of the key moments and being lazy when it really can't afford to do so. But as a means to say goodbye to a beloved character, it's not without merit.
Because so much in Tim Burton's films stems from his vivid… MoreBecause so much in Tim Burton's films stems from his vivid imagination, his films are highly personal, love-hate affairs. If you love one first time round, you'll want to see it again along with everything else he's made. If you hate it, or are simply bored by it, you'll resist seeing the film a second time. But in the case of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a second viewing could just be the key to appreciating it, and - perhaps more importantly - understanding what makes Burton so magical.
Comparisons were obviously going to be drawn between this and the 1971 adaptation, starring Gene Wilder. The first version made several changes from the book (like making the Oompa Loompas orange rather than pygmies) and was famously disowned by Roald Dahl himself. This version remained in development hell for over a decade while various directors, screenplays and leading men were presented to the Dahl estate, and all of them were refused.
It's therefore a given that, with the Dahl estate on board, this adaptation is the closest possible to the original story. Fans of the book will revel in the casting of the child actors, and Freddie Highmore in particular, who are well-accomplished and seem born to play their characters. Some liberties are taken of course, but unlike the earlier version, they by and large compliment the narrative. The dark back-story, with Willy Wonka's father being a dentist who forbids him from eating chocolate, works because it broadens out the character of Wonka. It prevents him from being just another English eccentric, and with the new denouement of the film, we actually start to sympathise with him rather than simply finding him a little freaky.
When it comes to Wonka himself, there is no-one better to play him than Johnny Depp. For all of Wilder's charm and comic ability, Depp manages to tap into the nub of Wonka's demons, vocalising them in that voice which is alternately jittery and flamboyant, and in a physical manner which is both creepy and charming. Comparisons with Michael Jackson, however, are barking up the wrong tree; Depp's portrayal is by his own admission closer in character to that of Howard Hughes. His Wonka, like Hughes, is a man with a singular love, a love to which he has dedicated his life and which threatens to consume him now he is ageing.
There are fine performances through the rest of the adult cast. Noah Taylor, still most famous for his cameo in Vanilla Sky, is convincing as Charlie's father, while Helena Bonham Carter is reigned in by her fiancée to give a subtle turn as the mother. David Kelly and Liz Smith are entertaining as two of the grandparents, and Missi Pyle is the most interesting (and appealing) of the spoilt children's parents. And of course, one must not overlook the deadpan Deep Roy as every single one of the Oompa-Loompas.
If there is a flaw with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is that there is so much visual delight, so much going on on the surface, that the viewer may start to grow suspicious that there is nothing underneath. The rich and camp colour scheme - which make the factory look like the Joker's lair - is so overpowering that it threatens to obscure the moral points of the film. Burton is therefore wise to include enough scenes and snippets of dialogue to bolster the film's warnings against excess and selfishness. Whether in the invasion of the stores to find the golden tickets, or the piquant one-liners emanating from the children, this film has its eyes on the prize - so much so that we even forgive Burton for the highly sentimental last line.
The only other flaw with this film is the songs. Burton's close relationship with Danny Elfman has led some critics to believe that all of his films are essentially musicals. Sure enough, Elfman serves up another captivating score over the excellent opening credits. But the puppet scene upon entering the factory grounds manages to be downright toe-curling. And while the Oompa-Loompas sing lyrics written by Dahl himself, they are produced and processed in such a way that we cannot understand them. It's like dressing the Teletubbies in bondage gear and watching them through a kaleidoscope.
For all these little flaws, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remains one of Burton's best films. Like Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow before it, the niggling little flaws in either the script or the execution of certain scenes are more than compensated for by the overall quality. The result is a visual delight with a deep moral root, a charming children's story which marries the darkness of Dahl's original to the gothic majesty that Burton has been honing since Beetlejuice. On first viewing, the visuals and altered ending may throw you off. But by persevering, and revisiting, disappointment can be avoided.
It's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly… MoreIt's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows purely on the grounds of the industrial precedent it created. The financial success of splitting the last and biggest of the books into two instalments led to the same tactic being employed with Twilight and The Hunger Games, regardless of whether their respective source materials actually merited such an approach. For fans and casual viewers alike, the move smacked of wanting to milk as much as possible out of the last drops of a given franchise.
In the case of HP7a (as Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo christened it), we find the franchise finally starting to cut to the chase, beginning the build-up towards the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. Having drawn things out for so long, putting off this inevitable showdown, there is almost a rush to get in everything that is left to be said. Under these circumstances, splitting the book into two films is almost the most logical thing to do, and while not all of it works, it does have a lot of attractive qualities.
The feeling that a lot is being crammed into this final act brings us back to our ongoing comparison with The Lord of the Rings. Many film fans had quibbles with the ending(s) of The Return of the King, and fans of the book were in two minds about some of the omissions, particularly the scourging of the Shire and the death of Saruman (in the theatrical cut). But even taking those as gospel truth - for the moment - Peter Jackson did quite an excellent job of balancing and converging all the different aspects of Middle Earth in the climatic battles - a much better job, in fact, than he managed recently on the third and final Hobbit film.
By contrast, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 has a lot of plot for us to swallow, making it simultanously one of the most satisfying and one of the most impenetrable instalments in the series. If you spent the previous two films crying out for a plot which directly focussed on the return of Voldemort and what his victory could mean for the wider world, you will find yourself openly rejoicing at the fact that this is finally being addressed. Equally, the series is so far gone and insular by this point, that if you happen to find yourself watching this by accident on late-night TV, chances are that you won't have the faintest idea what is going on.
The film is helped somewhat in this regard by the horcruxes, a plot device which I covered in detail in my previous Harry Potter review. All of my criticisms of this McGuffin aside, the hunt for the horcruxes gives the film structure and a definite end-point towards which we are heading. Like The Two Towers, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 ends before said end-point has been reached, but like Jackson's film there is (to some extent) a feeling of catharsis and expectation of what is to come. That being said, the death of Dobby, like Dumbledore's in the previous film, still feels like an arbitrary event, included purely because it happened in the book. For all his dramatic credentials, David Yates still hasn't grasped how to build up tension so that a death can carry meaning: it's not so much a 'shock death' as a nothing-death.
By focussing on the search for the horcruxes, and taking the action away from Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 moves the series into more candidly existential territory. Our three main characters are at their most isolated and strained since Goblet of Fire, faced with a quest which is seemingly impossible, and having to cope without either the wisdom or protection of their teachers. Kermode's comparisons with Ingmar Bergman may seem far-fetched at first glance, but there is a point behind them: there are fewer creature comforts here than in previous efforts, and like Bergman's films there is little credence given to sentimentality.
The aesthetic of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 reflects this desire for all the stability and comfort in Harry's world to be diminished. Eduardo Serra, who won a BAFTA for his work on Wings of a Dove, shoots the action in a more pathos-ridden manner, emphasising the stillness of the woods, the intimidating dark colours and the increasingly pallid landscapes. Yates employs more hand-held work for the chase sequences through the woods, but is also judicious in his choice of wide shots to reinforce the smallness of the characters. There are times in Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack when the world around the characters seems to creak and wail, akin to Alan Splet's extraordinary work on David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Two sequences in the film reinforce the feeling of gathering gloom and descending darkness better than any other. The first is the animated rendering of the Tale of the Three Brothers, whose stick-like characterisations are somewhere between Classical depictions of soldiers and the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe. The animation on its own is beautifully designed and well-told, but the sequence gives the eponymous hallows more status than they would have had if introduced through just another swathe of exposition. The tale has a Chaucerian quality to it, with Death's characterisation being as subtle and cunning as his namesake in 'The Pardoner's Tale' within The Canterbury Tales.
The second, equally potent sequence is the trio's infiltration of the Ministry of Magic. I mentioned in my review of Order of the Phoenix about the Ministry's design being rooted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What was then a mere inflection is now made flesh, with Yates borrowing heavily yet grippingly from the Michael Radford adaptation, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. The low-angle shots of the banners and wanted posters, not to mention the robotic movements of the Ministry's employees, reinforce the feeling of freedom and justice being crushed in the name of purity and homogeny. Imelda Staunton's return as Dolores Umbridge only hammers this home, taking her inevitable place as the puppet of a state governed by fear, and projecting her own self-loathing onto those she deems inferior.
In the end, however, the centrepiece of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is the relationship between our central trio, something which is anchored us throughout the ups and downs of the entire series. Like Goblet of Fire, seeing the central three at each others' throats is completely believable, but now that the stakes are raised their every tiff or raised voice could spell disaster. Rupert Grint does especially well in conveying the frustration of his character, whether it's listening to the radio to see whether his family has been killed, or his reaction to the nightmarish visions which burst forth from the locket.
The only problem with the approach that Yates adopts is that the character-driven scenes begin to feel repetitive very quickly. It's not quite the case that you could show these sequences in any order you please, but the fact that Ron comes back so relatively quickly negates a lot of the emotional impact of his departure. Equally, there's little to suggest that the order in which the horcruxes are destroyed is the only order in which they could have been tackled; in this film at least, there's no progression from one to the other in terms of their potency or difficulty.
Another big problem with which the film is lumbered is the need to tie up a lot of the supporting storylines, often by simply killing people off. Rowling described the action of the final book as a war, and in war unpredictable deaths are to be expected. But that doesn't mean that characters and creatures to which we have dedicated several years of our lives can just be swept aside as collatoral damage. If you thought that Ginny and Harry's kiss in Half-Blood Prince came out of nowhere, a lot of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 will feel completely jarring and inert. Once again, Yates can't deliver the knock-out blow when it matters most, working so hard on a general tone that the particular moments carry no weight.
It's not just the death of Dobby which falls into this category; the entire Battle of the Seven Potters is a classic example of this approach. The special effects needed to create seven Daniel Radcliffes are all well and good, but the battle's choreography is choppy and disorientating; it doesn't communicate the chaos of the battle, it just leaves you wondering why they bothered in the first place. The deaths of multiple characters are treated in a lackadaisical, matter-of-fact manner, whether we see them on screen (Hedwig) or are simply told about them (Mad-Eye Moody). To top it off, Voldemort's appearance in the scene is a complete waste of time: he doesn't come across as threatening, he does nothing of significance, and he's so easily defeated.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is an intriguing, atmospheric and bleak offering which serves up a lot of good points in amongst its all-too-common drawbacks. It is perhaps the strongest of the Harry Potter films since Goblet of Fire, and unlike many of the films in the series it may well improve with repeat viewings. But while its visuals and main characters are impressive, it's ultimately hobbled or reined in by meaningless deaths and dull repetition. For fans, it's an impressive and ambitious sequel; for cynics, it's a reassurance that, very soon, this will all be over.
When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I described… MoreWhen I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I described the film as "the beginning of... the long, slow consolidation of the franchise." After four films of varying quality under three different directors, the series found a workmanlike happy medium under David Yates, who delivered a film which had promise and interesting ideas but struggled to get through all the plot.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues the transition of the series into a holding pattern which is both problematic and reasonably entertaining. Yates' direction is marginally improved, and the film benefits greatly from the brilliant performance by Jim Broadbent. But many of the issues which plagued its predecessor are still on show, namely the episodic plotting and the feeling of deliberately and needlessly delaying the inevitable.
People have written a lot about the gradual darkening of the Harry Potter series, in both the books and the films. When the sixth book was published, some critics worried that the stories were getting too "grown-up" for people in their early teens who might not have matured with the series. Yates and his collaborators have clearly sought to convey a sense of gathering dread, ramping up the blues and blacks in the colour scheme and with more night scenes than in the previous instalment. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is mainly known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet; having lensed Amelie, at the brighter, more whimsical end of magic, here he broadens his CV to deliver darkness on screen which is at times almost suffocating.
While the darkness may be welcome on a general level, there is a problem with how Half-Blood Prince applies its desire to be dark and bleak. Underneath all the technical jiggery-pokery, there has to be some form of narrative pay-off, a dramatic climax or the stakes being gradually raised which will make the darkness seem palatable. Shooting everyone in shadow or making them wear dark clothes will get you so far, but in order to truly accept that the world is getting darker, there has to be a moment where the evil or obstruction becomes fully realised. In short, we need a strong indication of the storm into which we are heading - or at the very least, confirmation that there is a storm in the first place.
It is entirely possible to make a film which ends on a sense of open-ended dread, in which the manifestation of evil is implied or otherwise takes place off-screen. Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which came out in the same year as this, did a brilliant job of hinting towards the carnage of World War I through unexplained and horrifying events which were difficult to fathom. Half-Blood Prince, on the other hand, feels like a false cliffhanger, in which we are left frustrated that we have to keep waiting for the inevitable showdown between Harry and Voldemort, which could and should have happened long ago.
Much of the fans' disquiet about Half-Blood Prince surrounds the death of Dumbledore - referred to euphemistically as "the unhappy event" by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode during their film reviews on BBC Radio 5Live. In the book, Harry is physically unable to stop Snape from killing Dumbledore; in the film, he simply stands there in shock, waiting under the stairs where Snape told him to remain in silence. Like so many details in the Potter series, this is a moment which should have enormous gravitas, but in Yates' hands it feels more arbitrary even without the changes in Harry's response.
This is extremely surprising given the intensity of Harry's previous scenes with Dumbledore. In an interview with Daniel Radcliffe after the series had ended, J. K. Rowling described Dumbledore's relationship with Harry as "John the Baptist to Harry's Christ"; his great deeds and "voice crying in the wilderness" prepare the way for the greater, deeper work of the one who comes after. Dumbledore is increasingly aware in the later films of his own frailties, shortcomings and mistakes, and the search for the horcruxes epitomises his desire to put things right. For all my criticisms surrounding Dumbledore's predictable role within the plots of the earlier films, his relationship with Harry has become one of the films' most consistently redemptive qualities.
One of the highlights of the film is the scene in the cave, where Dumbledore is forced to drink a painful potion to unveil a locket believed to be a horcrux (more on that concept later). Much of the plaudits have focussed on the technical aspects of the scene, such as the rendering of the zombie-like inferi or Dumbledore's fiery apparition. But what is truly memorable is the anguish on both men's faces as they endure horrific pain to complete the task. The pain of the characters is genuine and gives weight to what otherwise could come across as a meaningless McGuffin to pad out the plot (again, more on that later).
The real emotional heart of the film, however, is Professor Slughorn. Whether through Rowling's characterisation, Steve Kloves' scripting, Yates' direction or a combination of all three, this character manages to be both particularly human and immensely complex in the ideas he represents. Slughorn's reluctance to give up his memory of the young Tom Riddle works so much better than the vague conspiracy of denial dwelt on in Order of the Phoenix. By focussing the dilemma onto one person, it becomes more palatable for an audience and ironically its impact appears greater, at least in relation to a man's conscience.
Slughorn represents all the guilt, shame and regret that surrounds the wizarding profession with respect to Voldemort. He's a well-meaning but not entirely likeable person, whose nervous and eccentric manner belies a tendency to exhibit favouritism to his students and selfishness with regard to his own soul. Broadbent perfectly conveys the idea of a man haunted by knowledge, mindful that what he knows will help but terrified of the contents of said knowledge. If Dumbledore is John the Baptist, then Slughorn combines the misjudged treachery of Judas with the doomed foresight of Cassandra in the Greek Myths.
Broadbent's enigmatic and melancholy performance causes a significant development in Harry's characterisation which would be touched on in the last two films - namely his relationship with power and how he handles temptation. By working from the Half-Blood Prince's book and outdoing his classmates (including Hermione), he feels for the first time like he has the skill and talent to live up to his image as 'the chosen one'. Throughout the film he is torn between his mission for Dumbledore (to recover Slughorn's memory of Riddle) and his growing hubris and curiosity which stem from the new spells he perfects.
As before, then, the saving grace of Half-Blood Prince is its cast, with each of the three principals growing further into their characters and Tom Felton continuing to develop all that is snivelling and repulsive about Draco Malfoy. But the film still has its fair share of structural problems which encumber it, beyond its inability to have a meaningful ending. Not only is Dumbledore's death reduced to a mere incident, but the film never explains its title. As a result Snape's final words to Harry feel like they were crowbarred in to justify calling the film by such a name; for all the peeks into Snape's history that we've enjoyed, we've no idea why he should be called that or what it means in the wider context of the plot.
The film also has issues with accommodating some of the magical concepts. The atmosphere Yates creates on screen is definitely more magical and mysterious than Chris Columbus managed in the first two films. But mood alone cannot be used to justify concepts like the Room of Requirement and the Vanishing Cabinet. Like the previous film, the idea is badly derivative and jars with the general attempt within Rowling's world for everything to have a logical basis; you cannot create dramatic tension if you can just magic something out of thin air when you need it.
Then we come to the horcruxes, which serve as the driving McGuffin for The Deathly Hallows. Even taking on board everything I have said about Dumbledore and Harry's relationship, there are two big problems with this concept. Firstly, the idea is not particularly original, with both Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings and the puzzle box from Hellraiser being prior examples. And secondly, there is a simple plot hole to consider; if Dumbledore knew that Riddle's diary was a horcrux, why has he waited so long to search for the others? By introducing the concept so late, rather than, for instance, hunting one horcrux per film, it feels like a last-minute, back-of-a-beer-mat resolution to the story, with everything that has gone before serving to buy Rowling some time.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is an enjoyable and atmospheric offering whose performances cover up its narrative and structural shortcomings. While the cast are largely excellent and the dark tone is welcome compared to the earlier offerings, it isn't put together with sufficient skill or ingenuity to deliver enough of a knock-out punch. At the three-quarter mark in this franchise, it's a middling but entertaining effort, and certainly enough to whet our appetites for both parts of The Deathly Hallows.
Seth Macfarlane has rapidly become of the most divisive comedians of… MoreSeth Macfarlane has rapidly become of the most divisive comedians of the modern era. The continuing, often baffling success of Family Guy and American Dad! have made him as successful as the creators of The Simpsons, earning him millions of fans and an equal number of critics, both professional and public. For some, he is a witty, ingenious writer and performer with a gift for puncturing egos; for others, he is nasty, derivative, mean-spirited and crass, whose work lacks the narrative coherency of his betters.
Wherever you stand on Macfarlane's televisual endeavours, translating from one medium to another is notoriously difficult. It's very tempting to treat any film project as merely an excuse to get in more of the same material, or to allow the jokes to run on for longer than a 20-minute episode would usually permit. Just as was with Ted, so it is with Macfarlane's second film, A Million Ways to Die in the West (hereafter A Million Ways). While not without brief moments of coherence or spark, the film is largely unfunny, unfocussed, and squanders all the best ideas for the cheapest gag on which it can lay its hands.
A good way of illustrating the central problem with this film is to be found in Dwarfing USA, a DVD documentary about the ill-fated American version of Red Dwarf. Doug Naylor, who co-created the original series, recalled being in a room of writers from The Simpsons and Cheers, and being berated for wanting to work on character construction rather than coming up with gags. Naylor said to the writers present: "It doesn't matter how many one-liners you think of, it's not going to solve the problem. It's just Bandaid over the cancer."
The point of this comparison is that Macfarlane has clearly gone to town thinking of as many throwaway gags with a Western aspect as he can. You can imagine him sitting in a writers' meeting for hours, writing down every funny thing that occurred to him and ticking them off a huge list as he tried to fit them all in. But no matter how many jokes he can produce, or how long he chooses to play these jokes out for, they cannot solve the underlying problems: the story and the characters.
The great comedy westerns of old, like Blazing Saddles, soared because their stories and characters worked on their own merits without them having to constantly try and be funny. Underneath all the buffoonery and fart jokes, there was a believable relationship between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, who were part of a story with genuine tension, stakes and even pathos. Mel Brooks understood that comedy is often borne out of human misery, and used even its silliest moments to poke fun at Western stereotypes.
In A Million Ways, Macfarlane has set his sights far lower than Brooks did even at his low point in the 1990s. While both filmmakers brought modern dialogue to an historic setting, Macfarlane doesn't do anything constructive with this conceit. Like a lot of American comedians, Macfarlane treats the film as an excuse to play a version of himself in which his ability to wisecrack trumps all other ideas or plot considerations. He's playing at being a cowboy, making up the plot as he sees fit, rather than creating believable cowboy characters who just happen to talk like 1970s Jewish comedians.
The central idea of A Million Ways isn't exactly a bad one. Many modern westerns go for a gritty and earthy approach, eschewing the nostalgia of John Ford and John Wayne, but very few dramatic westerns dwell on the fine points of sudden, horrible death by anything other than a gun. There is definitely potential in making a film about the Wild West as a place where people can die suddenly without good reason or means of moral justification - a sort of 19th-century Leviathan, but with jokes.
Even if Macfarlane's ambitions didn't extend to a full-on reworking of Thomas Hobbes, he could have taken this central idea further. He could have used Charlize Theron's character to directly challenge the gender stereotypying of westerns; there hasn't been a cowboy film with a viable female lead for many years. Equally, he could have taken Liam Neeson's ruthless, lugubrious villain and subverted the concept, making him a complete coward or someone who is misunderstood. He could have done any number of things - but as usual he settles for the cheap gag and the fast buck over anything involving either thought or genuine creativity.
Most of the biggest gags in A Million Ways - in other words, the ones that made the trailer - are lowest common denominator fare designed to get a quick shock and a shameful laugh. There's nothing inherently wrong with jokes about poo, vomiting, farting or sexual intercourse, but you have to package them in a certain way to stop the comedy becoming about shock value for shock value's sake. John Waters knew this, Mel Brooks knew this, even the Farrelly Brothers knew this - but clearly it's something that Macfarlane still has to learn.
There is no better example of this than the all-too lengthy scene involving Neil Patrick Harris getting the runs during the gunfight. The initial idea has some comedic promise - someone can't attend a gunfight because he can't stop going to the toilet. In the hands of a director who understood that suggestion is often more effective than being explicit, the joke could have worked reasonably well. But Macfarlane shows us far too much, repeating the same joke over and over without progressing the scene, and then giving us the totally unnecessarily close-up of the hat full of faeces. He deconstructs his own joke while he's telling it, insulting our intelligence and bringing the pace of the scene to a grinding halt.
The same goes for the so-called climax, where Albert outwits Clinch in the final duel. Had Macfarlane put in the hard yards, showing the growing ingenuity and self-respect of Albert, this development would have made much more sense and felt cathartic. As it is, it looks and feels for all the world like the writer plucked the resolution out of his arsw, shoehorned the plot around it and then explained it to death, killing the joke in the process. Tom Baker got away with this in some of the weaker episodes of Doctor Who because he was charismatic and appealing enough to make us believe that the Doctor was really that clever. But Albert isn't clever: he's as stupid as his creator believes his audience to be.
In hindsight, it was a very bad idea to allow Macfarlane to direct, produce, write and star in this film. Whether because his energies are too thinly spread or because he has no real talent at all, he comes up short in every aspect. His central performance is flat and weak, with no real character development and a cocky, chauvinistic quality which makes him unappealing. His writing is mediocre, always low-balling it when a person in his position should be taking risks. His direction is to westerns what Chris Columbus was to Harry Potter, with the camera remaining so static that we can tell when a joke is being set up just by looking at a given shot for more than a second. And by producing it, alongside good friends Scott Stuber and Jason Clark, there is no-one to rein him in when he starts being narratively flatulent as well as comedically so.
If we disregard the jokes for the moment - difficult as that may be - we find ourselves coming back to the issue with the characters. The central dynamic is simply a lazy and boring regurgitation of the Judd Apatow formula - namely a romance in which a schlubby, incompetent, shallow and cretinous guy ends up with the beautiful, smart, resourceful woman for no good reason. Taken abstractly, there is no way in hell that Anna would end up with Albert, and shaping him as the lesser of two evils over Clinch is not only stupid, it's downright misogynistic.
In spite of all this, it would be wrong to describe A Million Ways as an abject failure. There are so many gags being thrown at you that some are bound to stick in a disposable way, and for newcomers to the comedy western sub-genre, there are worse places in which one could start (Wagons East, for example). It is equally possible to enjoy it for the supporting cast, who work overtime to do their best in spite of the material. While Neeson is largely boring, pitching it somewhere between Taken and Seraphim Falls, Theron is a lot more appealing and almost manages to make her role convincing in its own right.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointingly scattershot affair which will entertain Macfarlane fans but leave the rest of us with half-remembered frustration. Its central premise and its cast both have undoubted potential, but every good idea it has is quickly ground down into third-rate physical or scatalogical jokes which are poorly directed, have no staying power, and are offensive for all the wrong reasons. Macfarlane can do so much better as both an actor and a writer, but the biggest compliment you can pay this film is that it makes you want to rewatch Blazing Saddles, to see how it really should be done.