My Week(s) in Movies (6/19–7/8)
AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY* — Bill Hicks was complicated. As are my feelings toward him. I appreciate — in fact I agree and share, mostly — his views and the message he was trying to get out there. (I shy away somewhat from the borderline-Illuminati conspiracy talk and the Chopra-esque “We are all love energy” stuff.) But then that’s what makes me feel squicky sometimes watching him, because many times the message would smother out the comedy. At times he was hardly a comedian at all, he was just a polemecist. Much like late George Carlin, he’d get his foot in the door by being a funnyman and then he’d plum forget to be funny and just make the audience face uncomfortable truths. Which, one could argue, is what comedy is anyway, but he didn’t try to put that spin on it. There’s a scene in the film which is footage of Hicks responding to a heckler, and he flies completely off the handle.
Hicks was probably necessary in his time. We might not have Stewart or Colbert if Hicks hadn’t helped remind budding comedians that, hey, you can be funny and challenging. You should be funny and challenging. So Hicks is an important figure in American comedy and American dissent, and that makes this doco well worth watching. But the bits themselves aren’t tremendous fun to watch, for me, being more a relic of their time than timeless. If I want challenging and funny, I’ll go for Louis CK.
The doco itself is fairly standard fare — promising youngster, a self-destructive phase, and a genius risen from the ashes only to be taken from the world too soon, in this case by cancer. But it’s well-produced, with some clever animation work keeping things interesting when no appropriate footage was available.
MONSTER MAKER* — I rediscovered the old, short-lived series Jim Henson’s The Storyteller on Netflix with some excitement. I had a vague memory of watching it growing up, and in particular had the memory of one particular episode that was a sort of meta-story about a boy who gets a job working at a Henson’s Creature Shop-like creature company and befriends/runs afoul of an incomplete animatronic dragon that comes to life when no one else is around. But The Storyteller is all adaptations of old folktales, and no such episode was present.
Well, it turns out it was a reasonable mistake to make. The Storyteller was in fact only one aspect of a series called the Jim Henson Hour, and the episode that I remembered was this TV movie — really just a one-off episode — called MONSTER MAKER.
I should probably just have let this one live on in my memory, as story-wise the vague inklings I had of the young man being mentored by the half-built dragon are much more interesting and less melodramatic than what’s actually present here. The creature effects themselves are brilliant, but that really ought to go without saying after all. Although it was interesting to discover that Michael Gambon was the voice of the dragon (aka the Ultragorgon), and also to note that Henry Dean Stanton, while playing a fictionalized Jim Henson, looks more like a young James Cameron. Wild.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE — I think my review here — from almost exactly two years ago! — still stands, so I won’t bother re-hashing it. The one thing I will say is, watching them in close sequence, the color grading in this film is noticeably more aggressive than the others. I heard in some behind the scenes thing or other that Yates and the DP got carried away with the power of the DI suite, and even what wound up in the film is scaled back from where they’d initially taken it. Yikes.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 — The film adaptation of Deathly Hallows is somewhat unique in the series, and not just because it was split into two films. It’s also the only film where the filmmakers weren’t marching blindly toward an unknown future. The films began shooting when only the first three books were published, the fourth was published just before the first film released, and by the time Deathly Hallows was published, the film version of HALF-BLOOD PRINCE was already in production.
So from the beginning — and to go back once again and soften my views on the first two films — the filmmakers had no idea what was important and what wasn’t. It had become clear by the fourth book that the story was not superficial and straightforward, that Rowling was engaged in a very complex juggling act and wasn’t even allowing the readers to see all the pins yet.
As I mentioned in my Hunger Games review, Rowling has a knack for mentioning important details as though they were unimportant, just in passing. For example, Mrs. Figg, the squib who lives on Privet Drive and keeps an eye on Harry in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, is actually, in the books, introduced as early as Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s just mentioned, in an offhand paragraph, that she’s the batty neighbor whose house smells like cabbage and usually babysits Harry when the Dursleys go out. It’s only because she’s busy that the Dursleys have to suck it up and take Harry to the zoo with them.
The batty neighbor is funny, as much of that first story is, but seems like so much flavoring to the story, just another silly bit of business and not an important detail. Only in 2005, when the fifth book was published and the fourth film already well underway, did it turn out that, oh, shit. Mrs. Figg is actually important.
That’s happened several times in the course of the series, where they find that something they left out of a previous film is actually significant in the latest, and they have to find a way to either shoehorn it in, or accomplish the story goal using something the movies did establish. A few times Rowling has apparently saved the day by giving them a warning without explanation — such as when she advised them that they’d do well to keep Kreacher in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (they’d cut him from the script), because otherwise they’d be in trouble later — but for the most part she’s let them do their own thing, for better or worse.
Here in DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1, they made the interesting decision to remain fairly true to the book, to the extent that they just up and violate movie continuity if need be. They introduced — for example — Bill Weasley, Ron’s older brother, never mentioned before in the films but he’s here now because he was in the book. He was actually in the last three books, too, and has little purpose here now that all that’s not part of the story, but never mind. Hi Bill! Also Mundungus Fletcher, who was also a well-established character in the books by now but here feels straight out of left field, a kind of asshole ex machina.
Then, after the ambush, Lupin pins Harry to the wall and demands that Harry tell him what creature was in his office the first time Harry visited him. Harry answers “grindylow,” and that’s the correct answer — sort of. Because that’s what happened in the book of Prisoner of Azkaban, but it didn’t happen in the film.
And don’t get me started on the mirror fragment in which Harry occasionally seems to see Dumbledore. They don’t even try to justify it, Harry just has it. There is a justification, but you’d never know it based on the films.
Here I am, trying to keep the film continuity separate from the book continuity in my mind, but this film just merrily pretends that it’s a sequel to the first six books, and not the previous films.
The book, of course, is better; but the film gets a lot right. I’m just going to come out and say it: I love the camping scenes. To me that’s the heart of the whole film, it’s the genius of the story in this act. It’s been built up as a world of magic and wonder and epic fantasy and at last the hero sets out on his final epic quest and has no idea what the fuck to do. It’s a tremendous subversion of the usual formula — again, something that I think Rowling did brilliantly with each book. The story never got stale because things never turned out quite the way they “ought” to according to the usual formula.
And it’s a beautiful extension of Harry Potter as an analogy for growing up. The moment he becomes a legal adult, Harry is thrust from a wonderous world where he’s always been protected by the grown ups, into the “real” world where he not only has no one to lead and protect him, he discovers that the adults he put so much faith in didn’t actually know what the fuck they were doing, either. He is literally lost in the wilderness, knowing there are things he ought to do, things that are expected of him, but no clue where to start and no one to turn to but his peers, who are as lost as he is. Is there any more universal story in the modern Western world?
The action is great and the drama is powerful. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing what Gilliam’s Harry Potter would have looked like, and like its predecessor this film manages to bring out more of the humor that has made the books so, forgive me, enchanting, and the lack of which — especially early on — made the movies feel so bland.
The only thing I’m left to wonder is if someone who hasn’t read the books can actually follow what’s going on with Voldemort. His story comes in such fits and bursts, through visions of Harry’s, and the dialogue is so distorted sometimes as to be almost incomprehensible. Could a — ahem — Muggle easily connect the dots that Voldemort wants the Elder Wand because he believes it’s the only way to break through the weird protections Harry has around him? Is it even clear that he’s looking for the Elder Wand? Does the audience make the connection between the Tale of the Three Brothers (brilliantly conceived and executed, by the way) and what Voldemort’s up to? I don’t know if I would, had I not read it. It just doesn’t seem clearly constructed.
Then again, it could be that these connections will be made more clear in the second half, the final installment of a truly historic and, to me, for all its foibles, beloved franchise. Maybe wondering what in the hell Voldemort’s up to recreates, in the interim, some sense of the mystery (and frustration) we readers felt between books, wondering the same thing.
We’ll all know soon enough. “It all ends” this Friday. I expect I’ll cry.
SUCKER PUNCH — This is kind of sad. When I first wrote up and published this post, I completely forgot that I watched SUCKER PUNCH during this period. That tells you, I think, what one needs to know about how much the film connected with me.
Visually stunning in pretty much every shot, I can’t for the life of me figure out what the point of it is. I don’t know what core idea the film is trying to communicate, and as a result I have no connection with it at any point. The film’s action sequences are also utterly devoid of clear stakes or consequences. Cliche as the saying is, it really is like watching someone else play a video game.
And yet, pained as I am to say this, it actually surprises me that the film didn’t do better. The TRANSFORMERS films barely make four minutes of sense between them, the action is utterly incomprehensible, and the shooting is somehow simultaneously kinetic and lazy, yet they’ve made billions. This is a stylish, visually cool work with great effects where you can usually follow the thread of action, and which doesn’t particularly make less sense than TRANSFORMERS or other recent “summer movies,” and yet it crashed and burned.
It’s interesting because I think if this were an anime, it would be far more popular (and least in geek circles) and highly-regarded as a piece of pop art. I’m not saying it’s good storytelling — it is not — but there’s certainly a level of technical craft present that is impressive, if not particularly entertaining. I certainly can’t recommend it in good conscience, but I am considering watching it with the director’s commentary to give him a shot at explaining what in the hell.
*Available on Netflix Instant.