My Week in Movies (5/7 — 5/13)
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE — Now that the final installment is imminent I’m going back through the film series. I plan to watch one of them each week, in review, which should conclude with #7 just in time for the release of #8.
I don’t think I’ve actually sat down and re-watched this film since it came out nearly ten years ago. (Yes, that long.) Typically in preparing for a new film I re-read the books instead. I also would have watched it at a time when my film evaluation chops were much less sophisticated, and without the benefit of the later films to show me what a HARRY POTTER film had the potential to be.
Still, I’ve known even just in retrospect that the first film was the weakest in many respects. Chris Columbus has always been what I have come to call a “workmanlike” director. He shows up and does an adequate job, but there’s no style or finesse. It’s all just middle of the road, almost textbook stuff.
(I watched this film with my writing partner Anthony, who has just finally read the books and hasn’t seen the movies, and without knowing who the director was, he commented — in exasperation — “This doesn’t feel like fantasy at all! It feels like a HOME ALONE movie!”)
The film is not tremendously well-paced, in fact it drags a bit, and it could have been resolved in the editing room. Too often someone will say a line, and then it will cut to another character before they begin to react to the line and respond.
Prime example: there’s the trailer moment, just after the kids have run afoul of Fluffy the three-headed dog, where Hermione says “I’m going to bed, before you two come up with another plan to get us killed. Or worse, expelled.” She turns, walks through the door of the girl’s dormitory, and closes the door. CUT TO: Ron and Harry, staring at the door. Ron shakes his head. “She needs to sort out her priorities.”
We don’t have to wait for the door to click all the way shut before cutting! We can cut as it’s closing and hear the click in the reverse shot of the boys just before Ron delivers his line, and save ourselves almost two seconds. The entire movie is like that — another pass trimming heads and tails and I bet you could cut at least ten cumulative minutes from the runtime.
Something I hadn’t remembered until watching it: Rupert Grint was the best of the three, at the outset. Dan Radcliffe does a serviceable job as Harry, and gets away with a lot because he’s supposed to be out of his element; and Emma Watson pulls off the fussy know-it-all well enough. But Rupert, as Ron, has the task of simultaneously being the sidekick and comic relief, and being the guy who is the most familiar with the wizarding world and explains a good amount of how it works. Of the three leads, he is the one who I most believe understood who he was and the world he was inhabiting.
(Of the supporting actors, I think Sean Biggerstaff as Oliver Wood is the most natural and believable as someone who lives in and understands this world, and I’m including the grown-ups. Expert as they are, from the very first scene the way the brilliant Maggie Smith stumbles over the word “Muggle” sets the tone for all of the adult cast, who aren’t quite on board at this stage of the franchise.)
Still, for what I consider his shortcomings, Chris Columbus deserves tremendous credit for casting the shit out of this series, especially the then-unknown leads. They’ve had the benefit of better directors to coax it out of them, but they’ve all grown into capable (and, lucky for the franchise, attractive) young actors, and it would be selling Columbus short not to tip a hat for seeing the potential in all of them.
COP OUT — What happened to you, Kevin Smith? You used to be cool.
Actually, I know exactly what happened to Kevin Smith, he talks about it on TOO FAT FOR 40, the latest of his putative Q&A sessions (currently available on Netflix Instant). Marijuana happened to Kevin Smith.
I’m completely in favor of marijuana legalization — I haven’t always been, admittedly, but I am now — but excessive pot smoking has clearly had a negative effect on Smith. He’s insecure, paranoid, and thinks everything is way funnier than it actually is.
COP OUT was based on a spec script that got some heat around town, at that point called A COUPLE OF DICKS. The script is one of the funniest I’ve ever read. Smart, snappy, great characters, unexpected twists along the way. COP OUT maintains none of the charm of the script, adds a bunch of astoundingly unfunny segments, and drags and drags and drags. I couldn’t put the script down, and I could barely bring myself to finish the film.
A big part of the problem, as could probably be expected, is the casting of Tracy Morgan in the role of one of the detectives. The characters are written sharp and sarcastic, whereas his whole schtick is dull and incompetent. So the character had to be changed to accommodate him, from which the entire fabric of the film — tone, story, sense of timing and humor, everything — unravels.
There are a handful of genuinely funny moments and lines, but mostly it’s stuff that would probably just seem funny if you were, let’s say, high all the time.
If you can find a copy of the script (Warner Bros. has been serving C&Ds to screenplay sites, so it may be difficult and I also don’t feel comfortable sharing it here as a result), read that and save yourself the trauma of watching this nearly-unwatchable dreck.
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE* — Second in Stieg Larsson’s so-called “Millennium Trilogy.” After my gallbladder surgery last year, my dad loaned me the books to read while I recovered. My recovery period was only long enough to read the first volume, but I read the second in due course. The books are good, but not quite “I must read the next one right now” good. On top of which, they’re fairly exhausting and need a bit of a breather in between.
But I’m not reviewing the books here (another time, perhaps). I’m looking at the films.
Like the HARRY POTTER series, the Millennium film adaptations changed directorial hands; unlike POTTER, this was not to the films’ benefit. The sequel to GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (which I saw last year, before I started doing MWIM posts — I thought it was solid and look forward to Fincher’s take) feels like a direct-to-video knockoff. According to the Wikipedia page — if I’m understanding it correctly — the films were in fact released in extended forms as a TV miniseries, so I guess the TV sensibilities kind of make sense; but the fact remains that DRAGON TATTOO is a far superior example of filmmaking and storytelling craft.
Story-wise, of course, the film suffers under the yolk of an inferior book to adapt in the first place. Dragon Tattoo is a fascinating and concise small-town murder mystery, whereas Played With Fire is a “getting the band back together” sequel using our old favorite characters and introducing new ones and just flinging them at each other to see what happens, with much less focus and clarity of purpose behind the plot. The first one used backstory to drive the story, while the second used the story as a flimsy excuse to give us backstory. And it has no real ending, just kind of stops.
The filmmakers, to their credit, made some wise — or perhaps simply no-brainer — choices in the adaptation. The entire first act of the book — in which Salander is vacationing at a tropical island resort that is hit by a hurricane, and during said hurricane thwarts a man’s attempt to murder his wife with the storm as cover — made me curious to see how they would adapt it. Not to be ethnocentric, but I don’t figure on a Swedish film having quite the resources that an American one does, to be able to simulate a full-blown onscreen hurricane and destroy a tropical resort hotel. So I was wondering how they’d pull it off.
Of course, the simple and obvious answer is that they didn’t even bother with that sequence. They open the film with her at a tropical resort and then immediately jump to her return to Sweden. I say this was wise because that entire interlude has nothing at all to do with the rest of the plot, such as it is. I say this was a no-brainer because again, that’s a lot of damn money which they probably didn’t have, to shoot a sequence that has nothing at all to do with the plot.
Otherwise, it follows the book fairly closely and the performances are solid, even if the production values are noticeably chintzier than the previous installment. I’ve got a few more books — both fiction and non-fiction — on my reading docket before I get to the monster tome of Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, after which I’ll check out the film. It could be that the third installment makes sense of and enhances the second, but I almost always get burned when I hold out that hope (I’m looking at you, MATRIX and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN).