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My Week in Movies (6/5–6/11)

June 13, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE — I remember this film being a good deal better than it is. Maybe I was just fascinated by studying another new director’s hand in the production; maybe I was giving it a wide pass because it was a long book that needed to be condensed somehow; or maybe I let it pass because the important scene — Voldemort’s return — was done wonderfully and introduced Ralph Fiennes’ You-Know-Who to the series. But I think Newell made a lot of missteps, particularly in what parts he chose to enhance and what he chose to leave out.

For example, someone who watched the movie without reading the books wouldn’t know that the connection between Voldemort’s and Harry’s wand is a result of the two wands sharing “twin cores” — both having feathers from the same phoenix within. It may be that in the version of the story that exists in the movies (necessarily an alternate universe to the version in the books), that isn’t actually the case. In the following movie, Dumbledore and Voldemort’s wands connect the same way. Maybe that’s just what happens when two wizards blast at each other.

The problem with that, of course, is that a) Harry ain’t Dumbledore, and shouldn’t be able to withstand Voldemort’s onslaught without an additional layer of protection like the twin cores, and b) the matter of the twin cores actually becomes really important when we get to Deathly Hallows, since that’s what leads Voldemort’s whole obsession with finding the Elder Wand (also not well-clarified in that film, but I’ll come to that in a few more weeks). Instead of explaining that, which would have taken like an extra minute of screen time, Dumbledore mumbles “priori incantatem…” without bothering to explain what the hell that means, only admonishing Harry that no spell can return the dead to life.

The film also minimizes the role of Rita Skeeter in the narrative, and while I can somewhat understand her subplot not being necessary in its entirety, the lies of Rita Skeeter directly impact the events of Order of the Phoenix. She is the reason the magical world at large does not believe Harry’s insistence that Voldemort has returned; she spends the entire year on a crusade of character assassination after he snubs her for an interview. To remove that character almost entirely, only keeping her as a sort of nod-wink to the fans, makes the actions of the magical world toward Harry more difficult to understand in the next installment.

The plot is built as a mystery, but the mystery gets all screwed up in the way it’s rolled out. In the course of four directly adjacent scenes:

  1. Mad-Eye Moody confronts Barty Crouch with surprising hostility. He is the only person who has been openly hostile toward Crouch in the film. Moody does a weird flicking thing with his tongue, which the soundtrack emphasizes with synced cymbal stings, and which Crouch freaks out about.
  2. Crouch’s dead body is found in the woods.
  3. Harry sees the memory of Barty Crouch, Jr. being outed as a Death Eater, in which Junior flicks his tongue exactly the way Moody did.
  4. Snape tells Harry that he knows someone in the castle is brewing Polyjuice Potion.


I think it’s the tongue flick that kills it — something that David Tennant improvised (it wasn’t in the book) and Newell decided that Crouch Jr. and Junior-as-Moody should do every single time they appeared onscreen. By the time the “secret” is revealed we’ve known it for an hour.

The film gets Dumbledore very wrong — or rather, it humanizes Dumbledore far too much. He’s frightened for Harry when he’s forced to compete, frustrated to distraction when he can’t sort out the villains’ plan, unable to control even the simplest situations, such as the kick-off of various tasks, thanks to the suddenly-silent bumbling of Filch.

Harry shouldn’t yet be privy to these moments of vulnerability and neither should we. Harry’s supposed to think Dumbledore’s got everything under control, always — which is what makes his death in Half-Blood Prince shake Harry to his core. To so early tip the hand, that Dumbledore is a man like any other, short-circuits a great chunk of Harry’s growth and understanding of the “real world” of being an adult.

It was Emma Watson’s turn to overindulge in her performance this time, and while emotionally she nails the character, her eyebrows emote at an 11 all the way through; it detracts badly from what would otherwise be a solid performance.

The Goblet of Fire book ends on a heavy but exciting note, with Crouch being kissed by a Dementor (thereby losing his soul and preventing him from ever giving testimony and backing up Harry’s story), the Minister for Magic vowing to discredit and deny Harry’s story, and the good guys preparing to form a resistance and fight Voldemort — and the Ministry, should it come to that. It’s the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the series, after which — as Hermione says in the film — everything’s going to change. But in the film, that line by Hermione is all that remains of this ending. It ends on a weirdly upbeat, even hopeful note, striking the completely wrong tone for the film’s conclusion and the sharp turn the story has taken.

Overall the film feels disjointed, more like a collection of fan-favorite and absolute-necessity scenes than a proper story being told. Instead of extending the dragon task to a sprawling (and kind of baffling) setpiece, Newell should’ve spent those minutes on character moments. It’s certainly more exciting and stylish than Columbus’ films, but at least Columbus’ had fairly clear throughlines.

HUDSON HAWK* — One of those movies famous for being a bomb, I saw that it was on Netflix and decided to check it out.

It’s… certainly unique. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon; everyone hams it up like crazy, and on top of it all, it revolves around a strange sci-fi premise wherein the bad guys are trying to get ahold of an alchemical device to turn lead into gold.[1]

It’s amusing enough, but I completely see how it didn’t make back its (quite large, seemingly) budget, or really connect with an audience. I can’t figure out who this movie is meant to be for.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 — I enjoyed the first KUNG FU PANDA a great deal — I thought that the martial arts was decently done, though left room for improvement,[2] and the story, if a little superficial, was strong enough and at least not all smarmy and postmodern like most of Dreamworks’ offerings to that point.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 continues Po’s story in some surprising but obvious ways, playing off the odd fact that Po’s “father” was a goose in the first film. Animated films don’t usually bother trying to make sense of interspecies families like this, so making it central to this film’s plot was unusual but refreshing. Po’s search for his external abilities in the first film are contrasted well by his search for inner strength and peace in this one, and I liked the development of the characters. Gary Oldman’s villainous peacock gave a brilliant performance, both in voice and animation.

So the PANDA part of the title was well-represented here, but the KUNG FU part left a lot to be desired. Whereas they’d clearly thought through the action and its presentation in the first film, this film resorted to incomprehensible kinetic shooting and cutting to conceal the fact that there was very little actual martial arts action in the film at all.

Prime example: there’s a scene where Tigress tells Po he can’t come with them on the mission, because a dark and forgotten chapter of his past has returned to haunt him, and his emotional distraction is making him a liability. Up until now the Furious 5 have deferred to Po, respecting his skill as the Dragon Warrior. He and Tigress have even been shown to be particularly close. But now Tigress is standing against him, and even though technically he should be able to beat her in a fight, he can’t. She’s proving the point that his distraction, his lack of inner peace, has rendered him powerless. And the fact that it’s come to this, between these characters, should be an emotionally powerful moment.

And we don’t see the vast majority of this fight. All we get is Po walking out of frame, some biff-pow sound effects, and Po flopping back into frame. This is a moment that the martial arts ought to be telling the story, just the way a musical uses its songs to tell a story, and it doesn’t. It’s like watching a musical where all the songs happen in another room, or are drowned out by the sound effects and the crowd. Why make a musical, then?

SUPER 8 — Think of a memory from your childhood. Say for example your mom used to bake cookies, and a lot of great memories are wrapped up in association with those cookies. Now, 25 years later, you find a scented candle that smells a lot like your mom’s cookies. All those associations, the memories and nostalgia, come flooding back to you when you light the candle. It’s not the same, it’s really only a pale imitation, but you appreciate the imitation for facilitating the feelings.

SUPER 8 is the equivalent of filling a room with about two dozen different candles and lighting them all at once. Before you know it, you’re reeling from one treasured memory to the next, giddy with nostalgic asphyxiation. Only when you walk out of the room and take a few deep, clear breaths do you realize that you’ve only been relishing old memories, not forming any lasting new ones.

J.J. Abrams has a theory of what he calls Mystery Box storytelling, and SUPER 8 is certainly a Mystery Box film. As such, I can’t say much about it without ruining some of the mystery and suspense. Also as such, I think the film loses replay value once you know the answer to the mystery. It certainly loses steam when, 2/3 of the way through, the mystery is explained.

What I can say is that the advertising is a bait-and-switch. If you watched the promotional material, you know a group of kids making a Super 8 film winds up on the scene of a train derailment, Something Escapes… and the Super 8 camera was running, and pointed at the event, the whole time.

You’d think this roll of Super 8 film would be something fundamental to the plot. The movie is called SUPER 8 after all.

But no. The Super 8 reel with footage of [redacted] on it has almost no bearing on the plot. In fact, the kids who were shooting the Super 8 reel have almost no bearing on the plot, other than that the film decides to follow them. I can see why — the kids are charismatic and entertaining, successfully emulating the child-ensemble films of yesteryear (e.g. E.T.; GOONIES; STAND BY ME). If anything makes the film worth watching, it’s these kids. But like the young protagonists in the Abrams-produced CLOVERFIELD, they don’t actually do anything except manage to be in the right place at the right time every 7-10 minutes so they, and we, can gain a little more information about what’s in the Mystery Box.

Spielberg’s early films (and other, similar-sensibilitied films of the same era) became modern classics because they gave us something to connect to emotionally. SUPER 8 goes through a lot of the right motions, but ultimately all it accomplishes — and sadly, all it seems to want to accomplish — is to remind us how good those other movies were. It’s content to be a paean to Abrams’ (and many of my peers’) childhood favorites, instead of a film that could itself become a childhood favorite for a new generation.

It’s fun and thrilling in its way, and I do think it’s worth seeing, especially by the aforementioned generational peers. But twenty years from now Spielberg’s films will still be classics, and SUPER 8 merely a related footnote.

  1. da Vinci accidentally invented it when trying to find a way to turn lead into bronze. Yeah. You heard me. Never mind that bronze is an alloy of copper and tin — 32 and 53 atomic numbers from lead, respectively, versus gold’s 2, which is why lead was chosen by alchemists in the first place — nor that da Vinci would have had way more sense than that.
  2. To be fair, I’m coming from the Shaw Brothers/Golden Harvest perspective where they have no problem fighting for 5-10 minutes at a stretch, so maybe my appetite for martial arts action is bigger than the average Dreamworks target.
  1. ‘someone who watched the movie without reading the books wouldn’t know that the connection between Voldemort’s and Harry’s wand is a result of the two wands sharing “twin cores” — both having feathers from the same phoenix within.’

    Actually, I’m pretty sure Olivander said that in the first movie, when he gave the wand to Harry.

    However, as far as I can tell, after seven fucking movies, all the magic Harry can do is knock people down. If Harry went to Sky High instead of Hogwarts, Bruce Campbell would make him a sidekick.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      You’re right, I was unclear.

      What I was trying to say was, a viewer unfamiliar with the books would not know that the twin cores are the reason that Harry and Voldemort’s wands spells connected the way they did. (Which can only become more unclear when Dumbledore and Voldemort’s wands do the same thing in PHOENIX.)

      And you’re right, even in the books Harry is hesitant to throw much worse than a stunning spell against a sentient being, and usually goes with the disarming spell; and the films (particularly in Yates’ hands) don’t show much imagination in terms of available spells. Though arguably this works to the advantage of the story’s suspense, since you know he has to defeat Voldemort and it seems impossible that he could.

      • permalink

        I only recently read the books, and didn’t realise in Goblet that the connection of the spells was due to the twin cores, though I did remember that they had cores provided by the same phoenix (it’s so cool that that phoenix is Fawkes, though we don’t know that in the movies). I always just thought that it was down to their own connection, which is highlighted in the films.

        I thought of your comment here today as I watched The Deathly Hallows part 2, and came to the conclusion that the in-film logic was that spells can connect if the two wizards involved are powerful enough or otherwise connected but that Priory Incantatem is the separate effect of the golden dome and the past spells materialising from the wand, though why this happens still isn’t clear enough in the film.

        Kloves and/or Yates seem to allude to some things without explaining them to the audience, almost to reward those who have read the books and to punish those who haven’t.

        The mirror shard was a complete mystery to me in DH part 1, though it is clarified in part 2. It also wasn’t clear how the Snatchers found them near the end and brought them to Malfoy Manor – in fact, I’m still not sure that’s made clear as I don’t think anyone uses the jinxed name; they seem to just be waiting for them in the forest on the off chance, even though Xeno Lovegood summoned the Death Eaters to his home in that way moments before.

  2. Casey Coskersey Cosker permalink

    I have to disagree about Super 8 somewhat. This is not a movie about its mystery box–literally the mystery of what was in the boxcar on the train. It’s a movie about children from broken homes coming of age and coming together. My biggest problem with Super 8 is that it would have worked just fine without a giant space monster with telekinetic superpowers.

    The space monster is more of a subplot. It provides context and atmosphere for the story about these children–a sense of menace that becomes a physical threat at the end. But the alien isn’t what the story is about.

    I’d argue that the film is titled Super 8 not because the camera records an image of the monster but because the story is about these children coming together through making a zombie movie with a Super 8.

    This wasn’t a perfect movie, but it’s obviously better than most summer movies. It’s noteworthy because this is one of those rare movies where a filmmaker gets to tell a story they want to tell in a big way. These films come maybe once every summer; last year we got Inception.

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