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My Week in Movies (5/29–6/4)

June 5, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN — Last week when I said that the price of a safe SORCERER’S STONE and CHAMBER OF SECRETS was worth paying, I was thinking first and foremost of this film.

The POTTER series had a built-in fanbase in those who had read the books, but that won’t always translate into a successful film or franchise. Witness the slow implosion of the NARNIA adaptations, or the dull thuds that marked the debuts (and deaths) of would-be franchises HIS DARK MATERIALS (THE GOLDEN COMPASS) and PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS (THE LIGHTNING THIEF — for which the “safe” bet of Chris Columbus’ direction apparently proved to be a liability rather than an asset).

With two strong successes under their belt, and Columbus choosing to depart (for variously-reported reasons — the one I respect the most was that he decided the third book’s darker tone was outside his wheelhouse and he wouldn’t be able to do it justice), Warner Bros. and/or the producers seem to have felt that the HARRY POTTER brand on a film was enough to guarantee a reasonable success, almost no matter what they did, and they could therefore take some risks.

It’s perennially in vogue to disparage Hollywood studios (aka The System, The Suits, or — as Mamet hilariously called them in a now-famous story memo — The Penguins) as the bad guys. Lacking vision for anything but the bottom line, they’ll mangle a film and stifle the creative voices involved just to make it appeal to a broader audience and sell more lead-laced collector’s cups at McDonald’s. Based on many many many tales out of school, available in books and behind-the-scenes and magazine interviews and the rest, this characterization does generally seem to be accurate.

But it is clearly not always the case, and I think the Penguins deserve some credit when they make a call that shows true vision. One example I would make would be New Line’s Bob Shaye throwing $300 million at Kiwi schlock filmmaker Peter “Bad Taste” Jackson to make three epic fantasy films back-to-back. Another would be Warner Brothers hiring Alfonso Cuarón to take on HARRY POTTER.

I just can’t grasp how this happened. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it did — even at the time I was excited to hear that Cuarón was taking on the film, and that was before AZKABAN and CHILDREN OF MEN had cemented him as my #1 favorite filmmaker working today. But while Cuarón had technically dipped a toe in family entertainment, and even splashes of fantasy, with A LITTLE PRINCESS in 1995, his most recent work pre-AZKABAN was the hyper-sexual, unflinching Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN.

Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN had fascinated me with its shooting style — the long takes and handheld camerawork that have become Cuarón’s trademarks — and the strength of the performances, but I am still amazed that the WB Penguins were able to see past the film’s explicit sexuality. And that they were willing to approach the man who’d made such a sexually-charged film and say, “We want you to take our family fantasy franchise to the next level.”

As I say, they deserve credit for this, as it turned out to be the best choice not only for the film, but for the entire franchise. Cuarón is a director of strong sensibilities, and he brought those sensibilities to bear with full force on the way he made this film. Aside from inheriting the cast and the broad strokes of production design (though he noticeably altered the layout of Hogwarts to suit his preferences), he made this film his own. Beyond changing the way the movies approached magic, which I’ve praised before, I think his approach to the film sent a message to the directors who followed him, that they could and ought to make the films their own, not feel constrained by what preceding films and filmmakers had done.

PRISONER OF AZKABAN was for a long time my favorite book in the series (HALF-BLOOD PRINCE managed to come in at a tie, and finally DEATHLY HALLOWS edged past it), so you’d think I’d be pissed with the liberties Cuarón — providing guidance to screenwriter Steve Kloves — took with the material. But overall, I’m not. What made me such a fan of the book was that it took a turn away from the first two books, which both followed essentially the same formula: Harry comes to school, Voldemort through some vessel presents a threat, Harry and pals unlock the mystery, and despite adult interference and incompetence manage to save the day until our next episode. And it felt that way: episodic. I simply assumed that in every book, Voldemort was going to show up twirling his mustache and our heroes would thwart him once more. It was a fun enough jaunt each time that I was willing to go along with it, but I didn’t expect too much.

PoA starts out as though it will be more of the same, but at its climax in the Shrieking Shack we’re thrown for a loop — Sirius Black is not a minion of Voldemort. In fact, aside from references to him, Voldemort doesn’t figure into this installment whatsoever. Suddenly we’re on the back-foot; Rowling stuck to the formula just enough so we’d get comfortable, then pulled the rug out. She continues to subvert such structural expectations for the rest of the series. This is also the first installment where it really becomes clear that these are not simply “Harry & Pals thwart Voldemort” episodics, but all part of a single, unified narrative — one which really kicks into gear at the climax of Goblet of Fire.

As I mentioned in my HBP review, Cuarón’s insistence on focusing on the story and not concerning himself so much with every little beat of the plot — in making a film and not just staging the book onscreen — elevated the film and its successors to exactly the next level that presumably was what the producers hoped for when they hired him. In so doing, the film version of AZKABAN presents as much of a departure from its predecessors as the book did, making it a far worthier adaptation and translation of the work’s spirit, than a rote recital could ever have done.

One thing that Cuarón managed to capture, in reference to last week’s post, was some of the humor that was missing in previous installments. Sometimes it goes a little too far so as to become almost Looney Tunes-ish — the frozen, lightning-struck Hufflepuff Seeker in the Quidditch match, or the long “Uh-oh!” take when Hermione snags Harry’s shirt as the Whomping Willow is whipping her around — but it’s another thing that helped breathe some new life into the series. The actors have really started growing into their characters and it makes me look forward to revisiting the next ones.

My one quibble is that I do wish Cuarón had bothered with a little more of the backstory, specifically the connection between Lupin/Sirius/Pettigrew, and the “Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs” of the Marauder’s Map — as it is, Lupin’s knowing how to work the Map and the form of Harry’s Patronus (and why he was so convinced it was cast by his father) are completely unexplaned. Though perhaps Pettigrew’s oft-repeated nickname of “Wormtail” is enough information for astute viewers who haven’t read the books. (Or perhaps it doesn’t actually matter at all.) And the scene in the Shrieking Shack is so brilliantly executed in the book, with reversal after reversal, I wish that Cuarón had played it up and kept that a bit more as it was. Still, these are quibbles, and for all that we owe Columbus for laying the franchise’s foundation, we owe Cuarón for leading the others in building upon it.

A LITTLE PRINCESS* — I decided to have a mini Cuarón-athón and check out the film that I assumed probably had a larger role in getting him AZKABAN than YTMT.

The film is shot very traditionally, with only a few hints of what would become Cuarón’s style in evidence, with a few war scenes shot with roaming handheld perspectives but otherwise the camera is mostly static. There are a few places where you can feel that Cuarón wants to be more active with the camera, with a few large pull-outs and push-ins and a couple of jib shots used in the textbook manner of showing the balance of power shifting (jib down = subject starts to loom over camera and feels dominant, jib up = subject looks small and submissive), but if you showed me this film and didn’t tell me it was Cuarón I would probably never have guessed.

Set during World War I, the story follows a young girl from a wealthy family, whose father enrolls her in an all-girls boarding school when he enlists to fight for the British. When he is presumed killed in combat, the British government seizes all his assets. Without being able to pay for the expenses she’s incurred, the girl is forced to work as a servant.

It’s a solid film, with some fairly good (if occasionally a little too wide-eyed and breathless) performances from the cast of children. It’s based on a book from the 19th century, set in Victorian times, and despite being updated to World War I it displays a few unfortunate ethnocentricities, such as a variation of the Magical Negro — in this case the Magical Hindu — and a rather rosier and more egalitarian view of British colonialism in India than was probably the case (though I’m no historian so I could be wrong). And I had thought that AZKABAN had been Cuarón’s first foray into visual effects, but some (heavily-dated) creature VFX pops up in the stories that she tells the other girls. All-in-all, decent family entertainment. If this Cuarón had made AZKABAN, there would not have been much discernible difference from the first two. Now I want to see his GREAT EXPECTATIONS, to see if it displays a stylistic intermediate between the two extremes.

VAMPIRES IN HAVANA* — Netflix suggested this movie to me based on I don’t know what, however it is their suggestion system works. I decided to watch it primarily because I wanted to watch something and this is especially short (69 minutes).

There’s a genre of animation from the 60s and 70s that was geared toward an adult audience. It sounds weird to say that now, when animation for adults is widely accepted, but at the time (and really, up until The Simpsons) it was very much a niche. Such cartoons tended to be crude in both style and humor, essentially the descendants of the old penny dreadfuls.

VAMPIRES IN HAVANA is surprisingly less bawdy than I expected, and actually tells an odd but interesting story, about a vampire scientist who created a formula which allows vampires to walk in the sun (humorously, it’s a variation on the piña colada, which is why he stationed himself in Havana to work on it), the vampire nephew who has grown up immune to the sun as a proof of the formula’s success (and doesn’t know he’s a vampire), and warring factions of organized crime in the vampire community with their own designs on the formula. It’s silly but unique and if you’ve got about an hour to kill (and don’t mind reading subtitles — it’s in Spanish) it might be worth a look.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS — X-MEN is one of those franchises that I can take or leave. Like many elements of pop/geek culture, I’m aware of the broad strokes of the X-MEN mythology, and I watched some episodes of the animated series growing up, but I’m not engrossed or invested to the point where I’ll much care or even notice if they deviate from the established mythology, as long as they’re telling a solid and engaging story.

That being the case, X3 and WOLVERINE were abysmal, badly squandering all the creative potential built up by the original film and its even better sequel, to the point that I had written off future installments and spinoffs as a bad job from the outset. I paid little mind to the development or approach of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, other than having an awareness of the truncated production schedule (10 months script-to-screen). But I’m a fan of Matthew Vaughn. He’s a director who understands character and is consistently concerned with telling a good, cinematic story. He involves himself in the scripts of the projects he makes, and in my view when he deviates from the source material he does so with good reason and it makes for a better film. So between his involvement, a pretty good theatrical trailer, and rave reviews, I decided to see FIRST CLASS in its first showing.

FIRST CLASS is probably the best X-MEN film to date. As a prequel to the existing films it does an outstanding job of delving deeper into the characters we know — particularly Charles Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr — and showing how they got to be the way they were in the 2000 film. The arcs are solid and plausible, as well as dripping with dramatic irony (Magneto’s journey takes him from seeking vengeance against the Nazis for what they did to him, to becoming convinced that mutants are a new Master Race). It also goes its own way in a few places and could not be 100% aligned with the originals without some inconsistencies, so it’s half-reboot. But then again comic books happily retool their internal mythology all the time if it suits the present story, so I suppose it’s nothing untoward.

Set in the 1960s, it’s actually made in many ways like a 60s film, including THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR-style splitscreening. It’s essentially “James Bond with mutants,” and it feels retro without the postmodern knowing wink. You get the feel (especially from the closing credits) that they wanted to make a film not just about the X-Men in the 60s, but almost the film that they would have made in the 60s had they the effects technology at their disposal. It’s more modern in style in its reliance on close-up singles and constructing performances in the edit, versus the prevalence of master shots and in-camera blocking in the 60s, but it finds just the right balance to create the flavor while still delivering what audiences expect in a contemporary action film.

By making a character-driven film Matthew Vaughn has created a new high-water mark for non-gritty superhero storytelling. Instead of focusing on the effects and the action, the people become real and we can engage at a deeper and more interesting level than before. That’s not to say that the effects and action aren’t themselves fantastic, but the spectacle was always in service of the story and the story in service of the characters. I hope to see more spectacle films, especially ensemble superhero films (*cough*AVENGERS*cough*) follow his lead.

  1. Loved your summation about X-Men. So much that I quoted it in a post of my own:

  2. “I am still amazed that the WB Penguins were able to see past the film’s explicit sexuality”

    I’ll bet they never watched Y Tu Mama Tabien. They just needed a director and hired one getting great buzz. “A couple of Hispanic teenagers try to get laid? Sounds great. It’s a tender coming-of-age story? And it’s in Spanish? Oh christ.”

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