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My Week(s) in Movies (5/14–5/28)

May 29, 2011

MONTY PYTHON: (ALMOST) THE TRUTH* — Actually more of a TV miniseries, but fuggit. This six-part documentary (each about an hour long) traces the history of the comedy troupe known as Monty Python from how they all met, to the inception of the Python “brand,” to how it ultimately ended.

I grew up loving Monty Python (except perhaps for MEANING OF LIFE, which baffles and terrifies me to this day — it’s mainly “Find the Fish” that goes past my surrealist limit) and I loved seeing how these things came together and hearing the war stories and factoids behind it, hearing the very sane motivations for the tremendously insane productions. If you’re a Python fan and a Netflix subscriber (it’s currently on instant watch), this is a must-see.

BRIDESMAIDS — I didn’t expect much from this film, in fact I had no intention of seeing it. It looked like a knockoff of THE HANGOVER — one of which (HANGOVER PART 2) just came out to abysmal reviews.

This one was getting great reviews, which I can’t always trust when it comes to comedies since, to go back to THE HANGOVER, people thought HANGOVER was the funniest thing since sliced clowns and I thought it was alright at best, and at worst a travesty compared to the legitimately brilliant spec script on which it was based.

BRIDESMAIDS is not at all a HANGOVER knockoff — in fact it even thumbs its nose at the expectations of people like me, having the characters plan a bachelorette party in Vegas and then sabotaging the attempt.

The best comedy has a heart among the jokes — something that many of the more adolescent “comedies,” particularly the “spoofs” of recent years, have neglected — and that heart is definitely there in BRIDESMAIDS. Many of the themes and storylines don’t quite pay off as cleanly and tightly as I would have liked, but enough of them do that a story feels adequately told.

But to the important question, is it funny? I’m happy to report that yes, BRIDESMAIDS is very funny. Kristen Wiig has great charisma, even at her most pathetic, and Melissa McCarthy as the brash, does-not-give-a-fuck Megan is a scene-stealer and worth the price of admission. It’s not a perfect film, but as good solid comedies that respect your intellect go, this is the real deal.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS — Being a big ol’ Potterfag, I naturally have been purchasing the Ultimate Edition Blu-Rays as WB rolls them out. These first two films actually have extended editions which I have not yet watched, but they also each have an ~hour-long installment of a documentary series, “Creating the World of Harry Potter,” each of which picks a particular subject of study (Characters, VFX, Music, etc.) and examines it over the entire series (excepting 7 & 8, which had not been completed when many of these interviews occurred).

The first one was focused almost exclusively on the first film, and how Chris Columbus assembled the creative team, cast the leads, etc. I gave Columbus a bit of credit in reviewing SORCERER’S STONE, for casting the series brilliantly up front; but he deserves more credit still for making the call of hiring Stuart Craig, the production designer who made (and continues to make) the world of HARRY POTTER so visually iconic and unified. I remember going to see the film when it was first released, and being astonished at how perfectly the look of the world matched what I had imagined while reading.

Some leniency also has to be given for how “cutty” the first film was — something acknowledged by Columbus himself. I should have but didn’t take into account the fact that they were dealing with an entire cast of inexperienced child actors. Due to labor laws, they would only get about 3–4 proper shooting hours with the kids each day, and the performances had to be coaxed from them over many takes. So they shot everything in coverage, running multiple cameras, and constructed the movie in the edit. I still think that the editing could have been better finessed and tightened, but I can at least get a better appreciation for why the film took such a pragmatic approach and eschewed style in the name of just getting the damn thing done.

You can tell, coming into the second film, that things have changed on that front. They rolled into CHAMBER OF SECRETS straight off SORCERER’S STONE (SS released on a Friday and COS began shooting the following Monday), so the kids now had 9 months of experience not only performing on a film set, but performing as the same characters, and were able to nail the performances after only a handful of takes. The cinematographer and editor are both different this time around, and it’s interesting now re-watching it to be able to see the difference the newcomers make, as opposed to just having felt it without being able to articulate it in 2002. There’s a lot more long takes, two-shots, camera movement, etc, and a lot more light and shadow interplay in the lighting design. It feels like more mature filmmaking, and while the pace still drags in some places I find it to be a better-edited film overall.

I remember being impressed with Dobby at the time (particularly the shots early on where he beats himself with the lamp), and I think for the most part he holds up, as does the basilisk. And the Quidditch action is light years better than the very 2D-card-feel of the first film’s match.

The comfort the kids have with the characters proved to be a bit of a double-edged sword, particularly in the case of Rupert Grint. While in the first film he struck me as the most natural of the young actors, he spends most of this film pulling faces for the camera. It’s like someone told him he was the comic relief character and he took that to its logical-but-insane, A Modest Proposal-esque extreme. Some moments from him still feel natural and genuinely funny — when he’s puking up slugs, the faces work; and his combined relief and rage when they escape the spiders, even though it’s only one line, feels the most real and nuanced of anything he does in the film — but overall he went too far and apparently had nobody reeling him in.

I think what really kicks this film up a level is the performances of the adults. We get a number of new characters in, including Arthur Weasley, Lucius Malfoy, and of course Gilderoy Lockhart. I said in the previous movie that the adults didn’t seem quite on board with the magical world; that feeling is gone here. Presumably because they had the chance to see the final product of SORCERER’S STONE and go “Ohhh, I see what we’re doing here. I get it now.”

I think it’s the scene between Lucius and Arthur, trading insults and threats in the bookshop, that really signals that the adults have bought into what they’re doing; and that, in my view, makes the whole thing come to life.

The film has an odd tinge of sequelitis, peppered with moments that are supposed to make us recall how awesome the first film was and squee with delight.

“There’s only one place we’re going to get all this… Diagon Alley.”

(She said it! I know what that is! Squee!)

Hermione fixes Harry’s glasses with oculus reparo (just like her first scene in the previous film! Squee)!

It’s just a little too self-referential for my taste; your mileage may vary.

An interesting detail that I’d never really noticed before: Harry’s signature spell through the series, as it were, is expelliarmus, the disarming spell; but he never officially learned the spell in a class, he learned it from seeing it demonstrated in the dueling club — he learned it, in fact, from Snape.

They made a good point in the documentary, that Chris Columbus being a “safe” director was, in some ways, probably necessary to get this franchise rolling. Dan Radcliffe says something to the effect of “Before you get in someone like Alfonso [Cuarón] to shake things up, you have to have a solid foundation laid.”

One of the directors in the running for SORCERER’S STONE was Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam — in fact, he was J.K. Rowling’s first choice for the position. I can absolutely see why she wanted him; he’s got precisely the right sensibility for the material.

What folks who have only watched the movies, and not read the books, aren’t going to be able to appreciate is that there’s an absurdism underlying the magical world. It is a fundamentally silly place in many ways, at least from a Muggle perspective. A distorted, absurdist take on our own world — and ours, to be fair, makes as little sense to them as theirs does to us.

I’ve heard people argue, for example, that the rules of Quidditch are idiotic, that having a 150-point game-ending move makes all the rest of the game pointless. Let’s set aside the fact that a 150-point lead does not necessarily guarantee a win (if the points disparity is greater than 150 between the two teams, the team with fewer points loses even if they catch the Snitch — this actually happens in Goblet of Fire, but only in the book). The greater point, I think, is that of course it’s absurd and pointless — all sports have rules which are absurd and pointless and arbitrary, and especially certain British ones. It’s certainly no mistake that Quidditch has a strong phonic resemblance to cricket. (Non-Britons, look up the rules to cricket. I dare you to make sense of it.) The magical world, especially early on, is meant to be a skewed satire of our own.

Who better for that than Terry Gilliam? I’ll go ahead and say no one. Gilliam could have brought the absurdity and the bent humor out of the material in a way the first couple films completely fail to do. The best they manage is that there are no vertical lines in the architecture of Diagon Alley. Right. Well done.

But. Gilliam’s also a perfectionist and, let’s be frank, kind of a nutcase. He would have made all the children cry and want to quit acting, run wildly over time and budget, and in the end the film would have been amazing, but would it have been accessible? Would it have been a phenomenon?

I think Terry Gilliam’s HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE would have been a brilliant, unique, oddball film… and it would only have been a film. Too weird for most adults, too intense for most kids, it would be a cult classic that left the franchise totally dead in the water. We would probably never have seen CHAMBER OF SECRETS onscreen, let alone the rest of them.

I would have loved to see Gilliam’s version of the film and the magical world, but if two somewhat-dull-but-accessible initial films are what it took to lay a safe foundation and establish a success that emboldened the filmmakers moving forward… if that’s the price we had to pay to get to see the whole series unfold, then you know what? I’m glad to have paid it.

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