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Voldemort!

Wednesday December 1, 2010 in 2010 cinema | children

It’s Harry Potter time again. David Yates directs his third film in a row for the series, with the final part to come in 2011.

The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows peaks very early in its two hours plus running time. This is where Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) holds a get together for the Death Eaters. Seated around the table are Severus Snape, Bellatrix Lestrange, the Malfoy family and other assorted black clad baddies. You can almost smell their fear of the boss. I’ve been to some pretty grim team meetings in my time but nothing quite like this. It translates very clearly and very succinctly the terror of Lord Voldemort, even from his supporters, that runs through all of the novels.

Tellingly, this very effective scene does not feature Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint or Emily Watson. And I was unable to hide my general disappointment with the film as, more than any other of the Harry Potters, we are constantly teased by tiny cameos from great actors. Fiennes, impressive as Voldemort, is hardly in it at all. Bill Nighy is magnificent as the Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour but appears only briefly. Equally good is Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood, but he’s wasted too with a very brief amount of screen time. Elsewhere other actors make far too fleeting appearances; John Hurt, Timothy Spall, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis etc. The true list is sadly much longer than this. The viewer is used to this in the series, however the film lacks any weighty presence at all from a distinguished British thesp; no Michael Gambon or Maggie Smith to hand out words of wisdom. And whilst Alan Rickman does feature a little we miss his trademark sneering at Harry. In his absence I caught myself sneering at him once or twice instead.

Ralph Fiennes as Lord VoldemortBut it might be best to reserve proper judgement on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for when the second and final part is released. In setting the scene for the big finale, the seventh Harry Potter movie runs the risk of being uneventful and empty. But that’s what the book is like, fans may argue. True, but some fans may be expecting more. Some may even feel shortchanged by this half of a film. But we’ll reserve judgement for now.

So what happens in this film – and, more to the point, if you haven’t read any of the books do you stand a hope in hell in actually following any of this? Well probably not. In the first of the films not to feature Hogwarts, our heroes appear strangely misplaced throughout The Deathly Hallows, awkwardly stolen from the usual sequence of term events that they’re used to. On the run from the Death Eaters, they spend much of their time hanging around in a forest literally twiddling their thumbs. Don’t fret Ron, I’m sure I heard Harry say, this will all be over by next July when the second part comes out and things really get going. Harry, Ron and Hermionie have too much time on their hands, pondering their fate in the open air. It’s beautifully filmed, and there is a wonderful sequence with Harry and Hermione dancing, but the younger viewers will find this instalment dull. And my younger viewer in tow informed me so.

Although it’s unfair to say that the film is a damp squib, and there are some excellent set pieces that you would come to expect from a Harry Potter film. The scene where some unwelcome nasties gatecrash a wedding is very good, as is the sequence where Harry and his chums break into the Ministry of Magic disguised as adults which is one of the best episodes of the series. And the cartoon sequence, that explains just what the Deathly Hallows are all about, is a visual treat. It’s just that I expect more from the acting talent on hand, and the likes of Fiennes, Nighy and Evans were truly wasted. I also feel, and I’m really, really, sorry about this, that the whole franchise has dragged on for too long. And Lord V. really ought to do something about that nose.

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Percy Jackson and the Rowling Theft

Saturday February 13, 2010 in 2010 cinema | children

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is an okay film. Alright, it’s quite a good film. As long as you don’t equate originality with quality, and don’t mind making a mental note of all the Harry Potter comparisons you will inevitably find. This film is very much School of Harry Potter, and gets tops marks for the Hogwarts Formula module. The Hogwarts Formula module is a course that teaches the following bullet points for success in creating a Potter clone:

  • Your hero lives quite a grim life, either under the guardianship of a grotesque Dahl-inspired uncle or an abusive stepfather. Later we learn that, in a perverse way, he is actually here for his own protection.
  • Your hero is an unlikely hero inasmuch as he learns very suddenly, and very quickly, about his true parentage when he is thrust into a new and very magical world.
  • Your hero has two best friends, a boy and a girl. There is some initial love interest with the girl, who is quite feisty. In a further instalment the hero and best male friend may quarrel over the girl.
  • The magical world is entered via a secret gateway not accessible to normal humans. This could either appear in the form of an extra station platform or, erm, a not particularly secret looking gateway.
  • The magical world focuses on training our heros, either in the form of a school, or an open air camp where you can do archery and stuff. A bit like Centerparcs.
  • a wise, big-bearded, authoritative figure oversees our hero and his gang. Richard Harris is the model although Michael Gambon will do. Pierce Brosnan will also do.
  • The director Chris Columbus will do.

And so on. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson has an advantage over Harry Potter in that it weaves Greek mythology into its universe, this giving the opportunity to use recognisable stories (whereas Rowling writes herself into a corner where she is forced to invent everything from scratch). Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief features a host of Greek Gods played by English actors, including Sean Bean (Zeus) and Steve Coogan (Hades) and a good share of mythological monsters, the best of these being Medusa (played rather well by Uma Thurman). The film gives an excellent take on the Medusa tale with Percy using the back of his iPhone to deflect the deadly gaze of the serpent-headed one. Similarly, the story of the Lotus Eaters receives a modern treatment when the gang go to Las Vegas.

Uma Thurman and Logan Lerman in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is driven by an obvious plot that is nevertheless still enjoyable. Percy’s mum is kidnapped by Hades, he must travel to the Underworld to rescue her but must first find three pearls that will get him and his friends back safely. There’s an obvious villain, and so on. Where this film doesn’t have an advantage over Harry Potter is in that is rather too cynical in taking up the Hogwarts Formula module. There aren’t enough strong supporting players (no equivalent Hagrid or Snape, for example) and, whatever you think about Harry Potter, it does have buckets of enviable charm which is beyond any formulaic approach.

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Up

Sunday October 11, 2009 in 2009 cinema | children

I admit to being a little cynical about modern films for children. This is possibly because I resent the recently introduced commandment “thou must take your kids to see anything with computer animated talking animals”. There now appears to be a further legislation stating that everyone must attend at least one screening of every new Pixar release. At least this was the outlook yesterday afternoon when we decided to see Up.

Thinking we could simply breeze into the feature of our choice at our local multiplex I was shocked to be informed by a smirking lad at the ticket booth that Up 3D was completely sold out. I was advised that we could either wait three hours (an eternity in kid time) for the next 3D showing or one hour for the next 2D version. I could see in the eyes of the smirking lad at the ticket booth that he saw 2D as seedy, scummy, not even worth bothering with. But we plumped for 2D, mainly because I’m becoming increasingly tired with the recent obsession with 3D films, especially those made by Disney/Pixar. I do not think that 3D makes a good movie, and in some cases – such as the excellent Coraline – 3D can actually spoil a film.

But the hour’s wait for Up 2D was unpleasant. Joining a line of people conveniently placed beside the pick and mix counter, being informed that we were in the wrong line but that it didn’t really matter, learning that our “VIP” tickets would get us into “the theater” first but only after forming an additional, but more select, queue. And so on. Why did I buy “VIP” seating? I don’t know. It appeared to only offer one comfort, which was in the leather backed chairs successfully muffling the heavy kicking from the brats sitting behind us.

still from UpNow I’ve got all of the extremely nasty preamble out of my system I can report that Up is a very enjoyable film. Perhaps it is because I could identify with the lead character, a grumpy, curmudgeonly 78 year old. Up is unusual in that it takes a old person as a lead, although Pixar cannot resist a cute kid and the obligatory talking animals. What makes it – and I’m sorry I cannot resist this – rise above the usual type of children’s film is both extraordinary attention to detail and emotional depth of the story. That Up is at times very moving is best proven early in the movie when the life of our elderly hero (Carl, voiced magnificently by Ed Asner) is told in a quick succession of silent scenes; his marriage to Ellie, hopes for a life of adventure slowly ebbing away as they grow old, Ellie’s death. It’s a quite beautiful moment in cinema.

Carl, who’s an ex balloon vendor, faces eviction from his lifelong home. Not a startlingly original premise for a film, but here the hero decides to escape the inevitable by floating his house away with the help of hundreds of helium balloons. He meets a stowaway called Russell (our cute kid) and together they head for South America. Here the film shifts from a visual treat of airborne scenes to the more mundane premise of another talking animal film when the two meet a speaking dog. However, Up manages to inject some originality into proceedings by making the talking dog and his canine associates rather wonderful creations (the difference is that they’re very funny and have fittingly animal characteristics – saying things like “a ball! Please throw the ball! I will run after it and bring it back!” in the eager to please way that dogs have).

The makers of Up have forced a simple plot to fit over the film’s finer subtleties, which could be seen as pressure to please the universal audience. It features a baddie (Christopher Plummer) with a longtime obsession to catch an emu like bird (who just happens to have befriended Carl and Russell). It’s to their credit that they manage to save the film from silliness. Plummer makes a fine villain and the resulting chase scenes are immense fun. Only once, where Carl’s house is hunted down by dog-piloted biplanes, did I bark gruffly that this was cynically inserted to benefit the 3D effects.

There are moments in Up that will go – I’m sorry about this – over the heads of the very young. I took it that the message of the film was how Carl believes his life to be wasted and that he’s missed adventure and excitement, only to realise that the most ordinary of lives is an adventure in itself. This is a concept a little too mature for the very young, at least the ones surrounding me yesterday. For this reason they will remember the funny dogs the most. Then this will fade and perhaps they’ll only recall the strange flying house. Quite often I judge the enduring appeal of a film by how long we discuss it on our 20 minute drive home. Although agreeing that Up was a sweet film, sad in places, with my ten year old and that the talking animals were far above average we soon lapsed into silence. I enjoyed Up a great deal but I suspect that it really isn’t a great movie; it’s an inoffensive, above average and well made film. In the crowded market of children’s entertainment that’s still something of an achievement.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Thursday July 23, 2009 in 2009 cinema | children

The latest instalment in the Harry Potter series is the best so far. It’s a film of great quality, lovingly made by director David Yates and featuring the level of excellence that you would expect in acting, script and, most impressively, set design. As usual, the familiar cast return, and whilst regulars Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith appear only to have gained a wrinkle or two, youngsters Radcliffe, Grint, Watson and all their Hogwarts classmates have indeed – as us oldies are want to remark – shot up. The cast also gains a brilliant addition in the great Jim Broadbent, outstanding as the doddery yet potentially dangerous Professor Slughorn.

Jim Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceAt two and a half hours, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince takes its time to unfold, and whilst the more talky sections may give the younger viewer reason to fidget, I found the gentle progression of the film most welcome. Following a great visual opening scene it soon settles into the character development of our three leads. Easily outgrowing their Hogwarts gowns (there’s a scene where Harry and Ron in their pyjamea doesn’t really wash), they are seen busy discovering their emotions and hormones; Ron is pursued by the dopey Lavender Brown whilst Harry begins to fall for Ginny. Hermione, of course, begins to develop feelings for Ron. It’s all handled very well, and with great humour, although again possibly of little interest to the younger fan.

What’s best though is the wonderful visual sweep of the film, where it remains something quite beautiful to look at from beginning to end. Fred and George’s dream come true of an amazing joke shop, the inevitable game of Quidditch, Harry’s journeys into the pensieve, Slughorn’s classroom of strange vials and potions, the Weasley home of many strange angles – all are brilliantly constructed scenes. The Half-Blood Prince is made with care and is forever intricate, a film full of deliberate and satisfying detail.

The actors, and especially Broadbent, shine more here than ever before. Thankfully we lose the irritating Durlsey scenes, and many quality actors, for example Timothy Spall and David Thewlis, are reduced to little more than glorified cameos. But again, in a film of such quality, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of Timothy Spall can be afforded. If I have one criticism it is that Michael Gambon doesn’t quite hit the spot for me as Dumbledore. There’s a hint of Irish in his voice, possibly a nod to the late Richard Harris, and it’s a shame that Harris didn’t live on to continue his run as Albus, as I found him superb in the earlier outings.

But what of the plot? Unlike most Potters, which tend to build up to the return of Voldemort in some shape or form (most memorably personified by Ralph Fiennes), this chapter falls back to the early life of the Dark Lord. I always found the novels frustrating in that, over seven increasingly longer volumes, they didn’t reveal nearly enough about him. This film is equally teasing, and non-Potter fans will no doubt comment that it’s inconsequential. But a counter argument is that it’s a different kind of cinema, a series of interlinked films that defy idly dipping in and out of. The ending, just like the book, is particularly downbeat. Don’t expect to come away with all of the answers.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a 12A, a certificate I would agree with as my ten year old daughter did find some of the scenes quite terrifying. In particular, where Harry and Dumbledore cross a dark cavernous lake to begin the quest for Voldermort’s horcruxes. It made me, and the strapping bloke in the seat behind me, jump for our lives.

So I have come away from the latest Harry Potter loving it because, in many ways, it has become – like Doctor Who – something almost beyond too much criticism. Skilfully made, enjoyable, popular culture. And if I compare this to the films made for children in the 70s there is no comparison. It certainly sets the standard very high.

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Not the Planned High School Musical Post

Thursday November 27, 2008 in 2008 cinema | children

Last weekend we went to see the new film called Igor. It wasn’t my first choice – I had a secret yearning for High School Musical 3 but my daughter had already seen it. So I went to the cinema with that horrible doubt you get when you’re paying to see a film you’re not really interested in. Igor is the latest of that ever growing list of animated features with famous, busy, okay I’ll do another animated film, actors providing the voices. This in itself is irritating for me; I always hang around at the end as the audience stampede around me for the exit, waiting for the credits to roll so I can check which actor voiced which character.

The animated Igor from the same titled film

And I feel bad about being such a critic because, well, doesn’t he look cute?

But the problem I have with many of these films is that it’s often difficult to judge just who they’re aimed at. The humour in Igor went over the little heads of most of the audience we were part of (their spokesman became a small boy in front of us who kept standing up and asking “what’s he saying Daddy? What’s he saying?”). Igor is an animated take on the horror genre, working in many elements from Frankenstein. Our hero Igor is the hunchbacked assistant of a mad Frankenstein who decides to embark on some monster creating of his own. Some of the humour isn’t bad – Igor being sent to Igor school as a child and graduating with a yes masters degree. Well, I smiled at this one but nobody else found it amusing. Then there’s a joke about the not-very-evil professor who creates an evil lasagne. I nodded at this one, which was a kind of Eddie Izzard type joke (and Izzard coincidentally provides one of the voices). On the whole the humour is sub-Woody Allenish. Okay on its own but somehow out of place here. Conversations that follow this type of film are usually along the lines of “who was your favourite character?” and “what was your favourite bit?” Not “didn’t you find the humour just a little too self-depreciating?” or “do you think John Cusack’s future lies in comedy?”

Igor shouldn’t be singled out – there are dozens of examples – and I do think that the smart talking animated genre (especially when they’re animated animals – Madagascar 2 is on its way) is screaming out to be laid to rest. In Ratatouille, one of the main plot threads is about a nasty food critic (voiced by Peter O’Toole) who can close a restaurant forever with just one bad review. The other characters in the film are terrified by him, but I found this too much of a knowing joke for children and explaining why the O’Toole character was so feared simply spoilt the gag. And I suppose you can blame Woody Allen a little for voicing Antz, which has lead to countless comedians trying their hand at this sort of thing; Izzard, Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and the rest. it can’t be a bad job, unless of course you’re a proper actor like Ian McKellen who didn’t enjoy making Flushed Away that much because it simply tore him away from the contact of other actors. Like hobbits, for example.

I shall dutifully see Madagascar 2 when it comes out, and we already have Kung Fu Panda on DVD. I’ll get to see High School Musical 3 soon I hope. And so we stampeded out at the end of Igor, or at least I did after checking the credits to see if it really was John Cleese providing the voice of a minor character. I think it was, although there were too many little heads bobbing in front of me to know for sure.

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