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Overall a better film than its predecessor, 'Chamber of Secrets' suffers the same way by trying too hard
Watching the 'Harry Potter' film series over again after all these years, in the lead-up to the new installment, I am once again struck by what excellent cinema these stories ought to have made. Movie history is littered with incredible movies made from less-than-stellar source material - 'The Godfather', 'Jaws', 'Psycho', 'The Silence of the Lambs' - none would be considered better than low-brow bestsellers, but the movies that were based on them have become unqualified classics. Maybe because a lot of pulp novels were influenced by cinema, and thus, while short on literary quality, serve quite well as screenplays. Or maybe it's because there is no real pressure on the filmmakers to be true to the source material - changing and 'improving' 'The Godfather' would hardly cause the kind of outrage that mangling Salman Rushdie would.
You see what I'm getting at. I don't think J.K. Rowling is a great author, and I don't think she writes great books. I first started reading the Potter books in 2000, as an 8-year-old; and, while I enjoyed them heaps, I wasn't in awe of them, having already read Tolkien and been awed by him instead. But I always thought that the fantastical world of Harry Potter, with its weird creatures and solid, archetypal characters, could be a roaring success on the screen after the manner of Star Wars. And while I didn't know it at the time, in retrospect, I can see why Chris Columbus started off directing the Potter movies - the choice fits with my vision of the series' film fortunes.
Except they didn't do it right. Or, rather, they tried to do it too well. The Columbus Potter movies are lamed by a crippling fear of ostracizing Potter aficionados or offending parental sensibilities - they don't dare depict anything other than the most vanilla view of Harry's world. Therefore, for all that the special effects are dazzling, the actors convincing, the story well told, a certain sense of wonder evoked, the lack of panache and palpable self-consciousness of the movies keep them from being a modern Star Wars. They are, to put it bluntly, a bit flat. Which is a real pity, because 'Chamber of Secrets' is the last Potter book with a relatively simple plot that translates easily to screen.
The movie takes its time in relating Harry's experiences during his second year at Hogwarts (unlike the first film, however, 'Chamber' doesn't give the viewer much sense of the passage of time; you'd have to read the book to know that the climax takes place at the end of the year), with Quidditch and an underdeveloped house-elf subplot having space to stretch a bit. If 'Chamber' had been directed by Alfonso Cuaron it could have been a magnificent film, as the simplicity of the story that allows Columbus to include little details would have allowed Cuaron to bring his inimitable style to bear upon the picture. As it is, Cuaron directed the next installment, 'Prisoner of Azkaban', which has a labyrinthine plot that becomes muddled rather than amplified by Cuaron's imagination - 'Chamber' would not have suffered in this way.
I think it's time I better mention the fact that I still found the movie enjoyable. While overlong and emotionally heavy-handed, it has just the right amount of humor and sinister spookiness to be good fun for all in the mood for well-made frivolity. As is custom with the Potter adaptations, production values and professionalism are never in doubt; the best possible crew has been hired and they do their job well.
The casting is, as always, excellent. Along with the returning who's who of British legends from the first movie (the late, great Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, etc.), there are new arrivals in Fiona Shaw and the magnificent Kenneth Branagh - who shamelessly steals every single scene he appears in, even ones with the peerless Alan Rickman. Rickman, of course, is the perfect Snape, exaggerating his stylish wickedness but keeping just enough on this side of pantomime to avoid being ridiculous. I cannot imagine other people find him menacing in the first two movies. He is just great fun.
Bizarrely, the child actors are actually not as good in this second movie as their younger selves were in the first. Perhaps they're trying to 'act' too much. Rupert Grint, who was the best of the lot in the first movie, here begins his slide into relative mediocrity - his role consists of making the same horrified nauseous face over and over while rasping in a very high, fearful voice. Watson's Hermione and Radcliffe's Harry improved massively after this movie, which, thankfully, seems no more than a sophomore slump for their acting careers.
'Chamber' does have a different tone as compared to 'Stone'. The palette is darker, with Slytherin green (for obvious story reasons) dominating the screen. It is also much scarier than the first, while still retaining the whimsicality - and the innumerable reaction shots of children grinning delightedly that have become Columbus' dubious trademark - that the first film possessed and that made up much of its charm. With no more magical explaining to do the plot is given top priority, and a sinister one it is, too.
The world seems to want Harry never to go back to Hogwarts. Mysterious warnings be damned, Harry lands up controversially at school, where cats, ghosts and students alike are being Petrified by an unseen agent - only, Harry is hearing voices. And his strange talents - strange, even for wizards - are becoming public. The heir of Slytherin has returned to Hogwarts - but who could it be? And how can we make the audience get that we hate racial discrimination? Oops. Not quite sure about the last line there.
A fun movie, not a masterpiece. Guardedly recommended, if you have three hours to pass.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
A monumental achievement for Nina Paley, and a bloody good time for the rest of us
There are some movies that cannot be viewed separately from the story of their making - 'Citizen Kane', 'Apocalypse Now', virtually anything directed by Werner Herzog - and I feel that 'Sita Sings the Blues' is one of them. To put it mildly, Nina Paley has completed a Herculean task by making this film: 82 minutes of animation, fluid and beautiful, in four different styles, all on her own, on her own personal computer. For that fact alone, 'Sita' is a marvel.
The picture leaks creativity at the edges. This is readily apparent even in the basic idea of it - the Ramayana of Valmiki, with songs by '20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw as the singing voice of Sita, intercut with the India-related breakdown of the creator's own marriage, which paralleled Sita's, narrated by three 'Desi' English-speaking Indians that can't agree on the details or the motivations of the characters and analyze the story constantly and hilariously as they tell it. And all of it is animated.
The animation is, like the rest of the movie, bursting with life. There are four styles, each used for a different story thread - a cardboard-cutout style for the narrated bits and hallucinatory interludes; a scratchy, Richard Condie-like style for the autobiographical bits; a Mughal miniature-like style for the traditional Ramayana bits; and a tweening-heavy vector graphics style for the song-and-dance Ramayana-meets-the-Jazz-Era bits. The first two thirds of the film establish which style is used for which story very firmly, making transitions and digressions easier for the audience to handle - a glimpse of a scribbled New York prepares us for autobiography, colorful rooftops for a Ramayana segment. Thus the picture's leaping about becomes almost natural after a while, and is never jarring. Also, laying down these ground rules pays off toward the end of the movie, when Paley starts to break them: this grabs the viewers' attention and sets the audience on alert when voices that we've been conditioned to expect while looking at cutouts intrude upon Flash animation. In short, Paley makes sure transitions aren't jarring so she can jar us with them later, to good effect.
For example: at one point in the movie, the three Indian narrators tell us of a trick by an evil king to lure Rama away from his wife Sita so that the king can kidnap her while he is gone. We watch the plan hatched in cardboard-cutout style. We see it executed in Mughal miniature style. And we see the actual kidnapping occur during a Hanshaw song in the vector graphics style. Rama learns of his wife's disappearance in . . . Mughal miniature style. You, watching this, can never truly be impatient because you want to see what the screen will do next. That is high praise for a filmmaker.
Most importantly, of course, the film is hysterically funny. The most humor (at least for me, as a Pakistani who gets the in-jokes) flows from the narrators, who try to remember the old story as they go along, discuss it, question its logic, think better of questioning its logic ('Don't challenge these stories!') and generally provide non-stop entertainment before the plot - which, really, is hardly a narrative masterwork - can move along. There are also several satirical barbs directed at the Ramayana as the behavior of Rama and Sita grows ever more unrealistic to twenty-first century listeners, what with sexism and vague motivations, but only the prickliest devotee can claim offense. The movie is, above all, good-natured - although Paley really is very VERY angry at that husband of hers.
Just a note for anyone that understands Urdu or Hindi: the bizarre three-minute intermission halfway through the movie is the funniest part of the film due to one remark by what can only be a middle-aged auntie in the movie theater about the nature of the 'picture'. Keep your ears picked as the countdown ends. Trust me. It's easy to miss.
Why only an 8, then? Reading what I've written, I sound absolutely ecstatic. But then, 9 stars for me is only for classic material, and I don't think 'Sita' is quite that. This is no masterpiece. It's just a thoroughly enjoyable movie that bursts with innovation and - pure and simple - irresistible style. Not enough filmmakers these days make movies that need to be 'pulled off'. Making 'Sita' cannot have been a safe or easy choice. Hats off to Nina Paley.
By the way, due to copyright restrictions on the Hanshaw songs, Paley has been unable to release the film in the traditional way (for profit), and is giving it away for free on her website. Go watch it, and be sure to thank her afterwards.
City Lights (1931)
A truly universal masterpiece - one of cinema's greatest stars in his greatest ever picture
People say a lot of things about Chaplin's immortality. Actually, they say only one thing many times, over and over again: he is eternal, his films will live forever, a hundred or two hundred years from now humanity will still turn to Charles Chaplin for joy and relief from whatever burdens they may have, as like or unlike our own as those may be. My gut tells me there is truth in this belief, but I don't think with my gut. To be honest, I am not that optimistic. And my doubts don't spring from common sense, either; common sense says, of course, someday everything disappears - so will Chaplin. But other than that, I, as a 17-year-old, know absolutely no one of a similar age that likes Chaplin or remembers having seen any of his movies in recent times. All kids in Pakistan used to see them, and maybe they still do, but no one bothers to stick to it as the years pass. Tom and Jerry et al are still on TV - their place in public consciousness is continuously reinforced; they can legitimately claim timelessness. But what about all the 17-year-olds that would rather watch 'Transformers' and have only dim memories of a funny little man in a shabby top hat, ones that like movies only in passing, without passion? How will these poor people - and they are poorer for it - find 'City Lights'? This is a truly magnificent film. Its enduring greatness (if not enduring popularity) can, of course, be attributed to nostalgia - but only in part. You need never have heard of Charlie Chaplin to enjoy it. It also has the common advantage of all silent films in that it knows no linguistic boundaries; the story, unlike that of a Buster Keaton film, is simple and silent enough that one does not really need even the sparse title cards to follow it. Keaton's films, while silent, tended to be rather talkative, requiring the viewer to do quite a bit of reading. Chaplin is perhaps more widely known than Keaton because he, unlike the latter, can be understood by people who cannot read English or any language at all.
Chaplin's comedic timing is flawless. This is not, perhaps, Chaplin's funniest film, but it strings together sequence after hilarious sequence of classic slapstick nevertheless: the opening scene on the monument, the one with the suicidal millionaire, the one in the restaurant (my personal favorite), the boxing match - each is immediately familiar and unfailingly funny. (Sophisticated humor? No doubt it has its skillful practitioners and talented writers. I love it. But is it, when you get right down to it, actually any funnier than watching a chair pulled out from under someone's descending rear end? Not on this evidence.) But what sets 'City Lights' apart from other Chaplin films, and classical comedy in general, is its heart.
The story is, as I mentioned, disarmingly simple. Chaplin plays The Tramp, a homeless man with an odd mustache, a top hat and a cane, who is always in trouble because of his social ineptitude. He is persecuted because of his shabby appearance. He meets a girl that sells flowers who is kind to him, possibly only because she is blind and thinks he is a gentleman. He saves the life of a drunken millionaire, whose help he needs when the girl has trouble paying her rent. Obstacles arise. The obstacles are the comedy.
That really is it. It does not, on paper, sound like masterpiece material, but it is brought to life - partly by humor, yes - but primarily by Chaplin's persona as the Tramp. The Tramp is one of cinema's greatest personalities, the people's champion to end them all. His perennially good intentions, his unflagging good cheer, his clumsiness, his social inadequacy, his underdog status and his constant bedevilment by ridiculous misfortune make us cheer, cheer, cheer like we never have for any other character. It is quite possible that of all the great people invented by the silver screen, Chaplin's Tramp is the easiest to love, and love the most.
The movie is, of course, a great technical achievement. It is boundlessly entertaining. Each quirky character, from the flower girl to the millionaire to the class conscious butler, serves its purpose in moving the story towards it conclusion. The conclusion, of course, is one of the finest emotional scenes in movie history; in fact, in its length and low-key conclusion, without fanfare or fireworks, anticipates in a strange way the French New Wave. The ending is abrupt. I spoil nothing by saying you will be joyful when it comes.
One of the greatest of all movies. Most highly recommended.
The first 'Harry Potter' makes no mistakes - and takes no chances, and has no style
My summary might be a little harsh on what is, after all, a highly entertaining children's movie that's grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and, undoubtedly, still delights children that didn't exist in 2001 through DVD and Blu-Ray. But I stand by my statement - I liked it when I was 9, and I liked it last night, but 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' is paralyzed by its fear of alarming any part of its audience.
The chief difference between this and later Potter films is in its tone. This movie replicates the dreaminess and whimsicality of the book, faithfully recreating even incidental magical scenery from the novel with painstaking care - however, it doesn't add any of its own. That, in microcosm, is the one thing wrong with the entire 146 minutes of film: the plot unfolds identically to the book's, the dialog is often taken verbatim from it, the world is designed as the most neutral and safe - SAFE, is the problem - version of the Potter universe one can imagine, and the overall effect is that of an illustrated audiobook. Director Chris Columbus takes absolutely no risks, a decision which only seems more foolish as the years go by and newer Potter films, like Alfonso Cuaron's excellent 'Prisoner of Azkaban', burst with imagination and creativity. While, like 'Star Wars' (but less so), 'Stone' does evoke a sense of wonder at the magical things in Harry's world (and, in case anyone misses the point, the movie's child actors exchange chuffed grins for about a third of the running time), the anxious restraint with which the whole deal is executed renders it rather leaden.
Hence the comment about paralysis I started off with. It may be well made, but 'Stone' is - tragically, as it turns out, considering the quality of all the movie's other ingredients - uninspired. But it is rescued from a boring fate by the fact that it is, after all, telling a cracking good yarn. One that I (heretically) think is actually better for film than for a book, where the flimsiness of its plotting and lack of true literary spark makes it come off as a kind of Roald Dahl Lite. Add to this a stable of magnificent British actors who gleefully shed their layers of reverend good service in classics on stage and screen and dive totally into their spectacularly silly roles. The roll-call is phenomenal: Sir Richard Harris, Dame Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt and others in smaller parts that pull them off with panache calculated to shade any flaws in the performances of the younger actors - who, by the way, are really quite good. They don't need to be brilliant, and they're good enough here as 11-year-old kids. Which is what they are.
The story, anyone should know. Harry Potter is an orphan whose parents die in mysterious circumstances and who, at the age of 11, after a decade of living miserably with a cruel aunt and uncle, discovers that he is a wizard. He goes off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he finds that he is not only a wizard, but a famous wizard: the only one ever to survive an attack by the now-vanquished Dark Lord, You-Know-Who. Dark Things are stirring at Hogwarts - there is a whisper in the Forbidden Forest, a teacher with suspicious designs, and something horrible lies under the trap door in the left third floor corridor . . . and above it.
I quite enjoyed it actually. Shame it had to be so stuffy. Recommended.
The Wrestler (2008)
Much like its protagonist, 'The Wrestler' is a flawed beast with a massive heart
'The Wrestler' is the kind of movie you enjoy immensely while watching, and then, a few days later, find yourself wondering whether it was really all that good. You watch it again, and it's still pretty good. Darren Aronofosky's latest work, I'm glad to say, falls only a shade short of brilliance.
Much has been made (and will continue to be made) of the parallels between the story of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson and the man who plays him, Mickey Rourke. I will say no more than that Rourke is perfectly cast and, yes, OBVIOUSLY there's a lot of him in Randy. Rourke is far and away the greatest reason for the film's success - the story is fairly predictable, slides into dangerously corny dramatic places and the dialog serves up hokiness to match. But these flaws, like Randy's, only add to the charm of the film. While the screenplay might become a little too sentimental at times, Rourke never does. He imbues the Ram with conviction, pride and a kind of screwed-up goodness of heart that results in a screen presence so powerfully and, dare I say it, perfectly drawn it achieves a transcendent greatness the cinema hasn't seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in 'There Will Be Blood'.
You will root for the Ram. I guarantee it. He's not that smart, he's done a lot of things wrong, but he didn't MEAN to, y'see - convincing the audience of this is the movie's greatest triumph. It would have been easy to portray Randy as a poor dumb big fella, a 'sad-sack giant', and have the audience hurt a little bit in sympathy every time another character is mean to him. And Randy does get hurt a LOT in this film, physically as well as emotionally, but with Rourke taking it all in good humor and fighting to keep his head high, you will bristle in anger rather than cry in sadness when the hero is wronged. But this strength also creates a weakness, in that the primary tension of the movie becomes the audience's fear of seeing ANOTHER bad thing happen to Randy, which, for obvious reasons, disappears upon a second viewing.
Lucky the other actors are also very good. Marisa Tomei is customarily excellent as Randy's only friend, and Evan Rachel Wood shares a couple of very good sequences with Rourke as his estranged daughter. Randy's wrestling colleagues are all played by real professional wrestlers, lending a true authenticity to the matches and locker room scenes.
But what's the movie about? Rourke is Randy, an aging wrestler who was a superstar in the '80s but has been reduced to nothing more than an old-timer with a familiar name on much less glamorous wrestling circuits, performing at makeshift venues for tiny crowds. His only friend is Cassidy, a stripper who is also getting on a bit. Randy's plans for a comeback are scuppered when he has a heart attack after a particularly brutal bout; he has to quit wrestling, and finds himself completely unable to handle life outside the ring. His sense of mortality leads him to seek out his daughter after years of separation. She hates him, rather a lot and evidently for good reason.
Much more interesting than Rourke-Ram comparisons are Ram-Cassidy ones. Cassidy, whose real name is Pam, is a performer growing into middle age in what is typically a young-person job. They both expose themselves in front of adoring strangers, use fake names because their real ones aren't snappy or sexy enough, and they're both growing too old to keep doing what they do. Casting Tomei as a stripper could easily be misconstrued as an excuse for nudity, but it turns out instead to be the movie's major masterstroke outside of casting Rourke.
In my opinion, all good movies string together scene after memorable scene, and 'The Wrestler' has plenty of them. The backstage camaraderie of the wrestlers, the three big matches, Randy's stint behind a meat counter in a supermarket and the subplot with his daughter are all uniformly well done. The latter, in particular, is charming in a cheesy way - made so by Rourke again.
To conclude, 'The Wrestler' is a fairy tale. It is simple and clear, despite the relative ambiguity of its ending, and it rides completely - I mean it, completely - on Mickey Rourke's performance. For an actor to elevate an ordinary movie to greatness is no inconsiderable achievement. And this is only the first step of a comeback for him.