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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

I expect strange from a Charlie Kaufman movie; that goes without saying. I also expect some high concept turned inward and, most importantly, a humane if bewildered anchor. His other movies have dealt with similar themes of depression (Anomalisa), relationship entropy (Eternal Sunshine), identity (Being John Malkovich), and regret from afar (Synecdoche, New York). However, no matter the head-spinning elements, the best Kaufman movies have always been the ones that embrace a human, if flawed, experience with sincerity rather than ironic detachment. There’s a reason that Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece and that nobody seems to recall 2002’s Human Nature (ironic title for this reference). 2015’s Anomalisa was all about one man trying to break free from the fog of his mind, finding a woman as savior, and then slowly succumbing to the same trap. Even with its wilder aspects, it was all about human connection and disconnection. By contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about a puzzle, and once you latch onto its predictable conclusion, it doesn’t provide much else in the way of understanding. It’s more a “so, that’s it?” kind of film, an exercise in trippy moments intended to add up to a whole, except it didn’t add up for me. I held out hope, waiting until the very end to be surprised at some hidden genius that had escaped me, for everything to come together into a more powerful whole, like Synecdoche, New York. It didn’t materialize for me and I was left wondering why I spent two hours with these dull people.

A Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time. It’s snowy Oklahoma, barren, dreary, and not encouraging. In the opening line we hear our heroine divulge the title in narration, which we think means their relationship but might prove to have multiple interpretations. It only gets more awkward as she meets Jake’s parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) and weird things continue happening. The basement door is chained with what look like claw marks. People rapidly age. The snow keeps coming down and the Young Woman is eager to leave for home but she might not be able to ever get home.

The title is apt because I was thinking of ending things myself after an hour of this movie. Kaufman’s latest is so purposely uncomfortable that it made me cringe throughout, and not in a good squirmy way that Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has perfected. Kaufman wants to dwell and drag out the discomfort, starting with the relationship between Young Woman and Jake. She’s already questioning whether or not she should be meeting his parents and their inbound conversations in the car are long and punctuated by Jake steering them into proverbial dead ends. He’s a dolt. You clearly already don’t feel a connection between them, and this is then extended into the family meet and dinner, which takes up the first hour of the movie. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tips its hand early about not trusting our senses and that we are in the realm of an unreliable narrator. Characters will suddenly shift placement in the blink of an eye, like we blacked out, and character names, professions, histories, and even ages will constantly alter. The Young Woman is a theoretical physicist, then a gerontologist, then her “meet cute” with Jake borrows liberally from a rom-com directed by Robert Zeemckis in this universe (my one good laugh). Jake’s parents will go from old to young and young to old without comment. All the surreal flourishes keep your attention, at least for the first half, as we await our characters to be affected by their reality, but this never really happens. Our heroine feels less like our protagonist (yes, I know there’s a reason for this) because her responses to the bizarre are like everyone else. The entire movie feels like a collection of incidents that could have taken any order, many of which could also have been left behind considering the portentous 135-minute running time.

There are a lot of weird moments and overall this movie will live on in my memory only for its moments. We have a lengthy choreographed dance with doubles for Jake and the Young Woman, an animated commercial for ice cream, an acceptance speech directly cribbed from A Beautiful Mind that then leads directly into a performance from Oklahoma!, an entire resuscitation of poetry and a film review by Pauline Kael, talking ghosts, and more. It’s a movie of moments because every item is meant to be a reflection of one purpose, but I didn’t feel like that artistic accumulation gave me better clarity. There’s solving the plot puzzle of what is happening, the mixture of the surreal with the everyday, but its insight is limited and redundant. The film’s conclusion wants to reach for tragedy but it doesn’t put in the work to feel tragic. It’s bleak and lonely but I doubt that the characters will resonate any more than, say, an ordinary episode of The Twilight Zone. Everything is a means to an ends to the mysterious revelation, which also means every moment has the nagging feeling of being arbitrary and replaceable. The second half of this movie, once they leave the parents’ home, is a long slog that tested my endurance.

Buckley (HBO’s Chernobyl) makes for a perfectly matched, disaffected, confused, and plucky protagonist for a Kaufman vehicle. She has a winsome matter of a person trying their best to cover over differences and awkwardness without the need to dominate attention. Her performance is one of sidelong glances and crooked smiles, enough to impart a wariness as she descends on this journey. Buckley has a natural quality to her, so when her character stammers, stumbling over her words and explanations, you feel her vulnerability on display. After Wild Rose and now this, I think big things are ahead for Buckley. The other actors do credible work with their more specifically daft and heightened roles, mostly in low-key deadpan with the exception of Collette (Hereditary), who is uncontrollably sharing and crying. It’s a performance that goes big as a means of creating alarm and discomfort and she succeeds in doing so.

I know there will be people that enjoy I’m Thinking of Ending Things and its surreal, sliding landscape of strange ideas and images. Kaufman is a creative mind like few others in the industry and I hope this is the start of an ongoing relationship with Netflix that affords more of his stories to make their way to our homes. This is only the second movie he’s written to be produced in the last decade, and that’s far too few Kaufman movies to my liking. At the same time, I’m a Kaufman fan and this one left me mystified, alienated, and simply bored. I imagine a second viewing would provide me more help finding parallels and thematic connections, but honestly, I don’t really want to watch this movie again. I recall 2017’s mother!, an unfairly derided movie that was also oft-putting and built around decoding its unsubtle allegory. That movie clicked for me once I attuned myself to its central conceit, and it kept surprising me and horrifying me. It didn’t bore me, and even its indulgences felt like they had purpose and vision. I guess I just don’t personally get that same feeling from I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s a movie that left me out cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

Anomalisa (2015)

anomalisa-posterIt’s been seven long years since the last Charlie Kaufman movie graced our screens. Cinema needs a voice as wonderfully strange and intelligent as Kaufman’s, and if it wasn’t for a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, we might have had to wait even longer. The stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is one of Kaufman’s most accessible movies and it involves felt puppets. Think about that for a second.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker traveling to Cincinnati for a brief conference. He’s supposed to give a keynote speech on the importance of treating the customer like they are special; however, Michael is trapped in a purgatory of redundancy. Every other human being looks the same and sounds the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), even Michael’s wife and young son. Then he hears a voice that breaks from the conformity of Noonan’s vocal chords. The voice belongs to Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason-Leigh), an unassuming and unabashed fan of Stone. She’s bright and lively but guarded due to a facial burn that hampers her self-esteem. She’s eager to spend time with Michael and confused when he insists on spending more time with her. Men usually gravitate to Lisa’s more carefree and forward friend. Not her. Over the course of that night, Michael and Lisa navigate one another. He’s fascinated to hear a new voice and wants to know all he can about her. She’s flattered with the sincere consideration. Michael only wants to be with Lisa from now on, but this decision will have consequences and it feels like there is an invisible force fighting against their union.

anomalisa_new_1050_591_81_s_c1I still can’t shake the fact that there seems little reason for this movie to be animated. Perhaps it’s the fact that it started as an oral play, but the use of the animation medium and everything it can provide so rarely feels utilized. The repeated faces of all the other humdrum human beings in the world, that wider-eyed gnome-like face, is a fine touch but the same could be accomplished through rudimentary computer effects now. Hell, Kaufman’s own Being John Malkovich achieved this in a memorable scene and that was over 16 years ago. I won’t pretend to know the economics of the animation industry but I just assume anything as time-consuming and precise is going to be pricey (reportedly the budget was $8 million). I thought of money during the first thirty minutes. It’s almost like a bet, as if Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson (TV’s Frankenhole, Community) were trying to animate the banality of a business trip just because nobody has ever done it before. Here are a short list of other things, I assume, have escaped being replicated in animated form: waiting in line at the DMV, looking for a lost TV remote, cleaning one’s ears, watching the Republican presidential debates, changing the toilet paper roll, and filling out the iTunes user agreement. Would any of these banal acts deserve to be animated? Probably not, but I’m sure that’s the point for Kaufman and Johnson. For the longest time we’re meant to live the empty existence of Michael Stone and so we spend thirty minutes making pained small talk, checking into a sterile hotel room, calling loved ones, reconnecting with an ex, and visiting a sex shop in a drunken haze. My friend Ben Bailey asked the same question at five-minute junctions: “Is anything going to happen?”

Once Lisa is introduced, the movie finds its footing and purpose and it is a relief. Maybe that was Kaufman and Johnson’s design so that we, the audience, would also feel the same elation. The rest of the movie is watching a love affair, two people coming into one another’s orbit. The dialogue exchanges are very natural and slowly reveal different layers of the characters, mostly Lisa. Michael is intoxicated and demurs often, instead only wanting to hear the sweet sound of her voice. There’s a delicious irony to Michael working in customer service, an industry that is often listening to people’s angry voices over phone lines, and his inability to distinguish speech. Instantly we get a strong understanding of just how desperate Michael is to form a real connection. It’s his fawning attention that allows Lisa to allow herself to be vulnerable and assertive. In one of the most realistic sex scenes ever captured in movies, Lisa communicates what she wants and what provides her satisfaction, and Michael dutifully abides, determined to hear the sounds of her wonderful voice reach climactic degrees of pleasure. The love scene has garnered plenty of press just for the fact that it’s an animated film and our two characters are fully rendered, though this goes beyond just having recognizable parts. The way the bodies move, the way the lines and creases fold, the way people react to the inherent awkwardness of sexual congress, it’s all faithfully recreated and done so without a hint of comedy. This is by no means the raucous copulation from Team America. It’s a surprisingly touching moment as these two characters simply connect on a few levels.

It’s after the sex scene that everything changes. I’ll forego spoilers and say that there’s a certain buyer’s remorse when it comes to impulsive love affairs, and trying to maintain that same feeling of ecstasy can be like chasing a drug that requires more and more of oneself. There’s a very interesting transition that brilliantly illustrates Michael’s anguish. The conclusion is at once inevitable, hopeful, and also despairing. That’s because it opens up the world in a new way and provides further examination on Michael and the consequences of his crushing depression. The core of the movie is about the need for human connection. I wouldn’t cite Kaufman as a romantic but he does prioritize human connection and believes in the power of those fleeting moments. Aren’t we all looking for our own anomaly, someone whose voice slices through the din? Once those moments run their course, some of us grieve and some of us ascend, made stronger and more complete from the sum total of those magical experiences. The ending provides a new lens to interpret the movie, though most viewers will have already suspected given the mundane prison of the world onscreen. It’s not exactly a twist ending but more a confirmation that Michael Stone is personalizing his misery and unable to escape it. All he can look forward to are those fleeting moments of human connection and hope.

anomalisa.png-largeThe stop-motion animation is impressive though it seems intentional to elicit a certain strangeness. Stop-motion used to have that certain stutter-stop movement that made it wonderfully alien. With advances in technology, stop-motion can now look as seamlessly animated as other forms of the medium, as evidenced by the wonderful Laika releases like The Box Trolls and ParaNorman. Johnson and Kaufman decided to use felt dolls which allows the characters to have a certain glow to them, as if they’re emanating some internal lightness of being (apologies to Kundera). The illusion is getting easier to hide. Johnson makes the decision to show the seams of his universe. The facial marks that indicate the interchangeable partitions remain visible, making the Noonan-voiced characters look like they’re all wearing glasses. It’s an animated movie that wants to remind you it’s animated but tell a story that doesn’t need the assistance of animation. That’s one unconventional goal. I’ll admit that it did tickle me to watch the ongoing troubles of getting a room key card to work. Johnson also makes use of long takes to better communicate the reality of this world, from the mundane to the ecstasy. There’s one dream sequence that dips into more identifiable and surreal Kaufman territory, but excluding this moment the movie is mostly the ordinary fixtures of ordinary hotel rooms.

Following the uniqueness of its idiosyncratic creator, Anomalisa is unlike anything else out there and an animated film that is nakedly personable and desperate to grasp for something richer and more meaningful. I can’t say that this was a story that demanded to be told through this style or animation or if it even benefits from this approach, but Kaufman’s ear for human relationships is still sharp and refined. It’s like watching a stage play that just happens to be made with felt puppets that oddly feel very real. It’s a movie that has different layers of what constitutes reality, given an extra sheen of artifice. It’s a movie that conveys the hopes and disappointments of human connection from the awkward to the mundane to the revelatory. The film does an excellent job of communicating the all-encompassing heaviness of depression, how the ordinary can be just as soul crushing and harmful. And yet the film ends not on Michael but on Lisa and on a degree of hope, that the chance encounters that mark our lives are not without consequence and benefits, aiding people to take needed steps outward. It’s a movie about the significance of human connection; something that Michael desperately spends years looking for again, to feel fully human once more, to ignite the synapses. Anomalisa is a thoughtful and touching story. I don’t know if it’s an excellent movie or an unnecessary adaptation of an innately affecting stage play, but it’s Kaufman as romantic and cynic. Who knew puppets could get so deep?

Nate’s Grade: B+

Macbeth (2015)

macbeth-posterIt’s a mighty task to boil the Bard’s classics down to a tight yet meaningful running time and maintain a degree of cinematic quality. You don’t just want to film a stage play with the mighty parameters of film, and yet giving in to the visual majesty means less time for Shakespeare’s stirring words and complex characterization. Woe unto thee who attempt an adaptation. It requires more skill than thou would believe. I had hopes for the latest version of Macbeth from its top-shelf cast, Michael Fassbender as the titular ambitious murderer-turned king and Marion Cotillard as his wife and co-conspirator. It didn’t take long for my hopes to be dashed. First, the good: the rolling hills of Scotland are lushly photographed, and the concluding battle is set amid a roaring hellish fire and flying embers that makes for a stunning backdrop. The actors are fairly fine. If you couldn’t tell from this faint praise, there’s not much to credit as an achievement with this Macbeth. It’s strangely narcotized and often listless. It doesn’t help that the actors speak 80% of their dialogue in whispers or mumbles, even when they discover the former king has been murdered. Director Justin Kurzel (the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, also with Fassbender) falls back on monotony, whether it’s an overabundance of mist, similar and low-rent locations, and a plodding score that feels like scorpions are in your mind. Some of the changes are also for the worse, especially making Lady Macbeth more “sympathetic” and neutering one of Shakespeare’s great characters. She no longer sleepwalks and instead confesses her unshakable guilt to a cross. Also Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of his dead son with the witches. And there’s some brief inclusion of awkward sex amidst monologues. The final showdown comes at the 90-minute mark and the entire proceedings feel rushed and yet miraculously boring. Even the bloody violence is pretty tame considering its R-rating. If you’re looking for a truly cinematic Macbeth that enlivens Shakespeare, check out the Masterpiece Theater version with Patrick Stewart adapted into a 1930s Stalinist era. Now that was brilliant. Kurzel’s version of the “Scottish play” is one that only signifies disappointment.

Nate’s Grade: C

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.

Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.

For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.

Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.

With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?

I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.

Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.

Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The first two film adaptations were huge hits, but were derided by some as being too loyal to the books that it stifled the creativity. Now, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is out and it’s the first film to deviate from the books. How will Potter nation take the news?

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his third year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is also getting older, getting angrier, and learning more and more about his parents. He’s on alert that the murderer, Sirius Black (played the fabulous Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison and is out to get Harry. Black had a hand in the deaths of Harry’s parents, and now it seems he’s looking to finish what he started as a follower of Lord Voldemort. Harry relies on his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and a kindly new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher named Lupin (David Thewlis) to conquer his fears, his burgeoning hormones, and to face Black when the time comes.

The best decision the Harry Potter producers made for this chapter of the series was in getting a new director. Alfonso Cuaron finally infuses the Potter series with a sense of visual life. Instead of Chris Columbus’’ stubborn admiration of his fake opulent world, Cuaron keeps things fluid with a constantly roving camera and long takes. For the first time in the series, you can argue that this Harry Potter film looks and feels like its own actual movie. Gone is Columbus’ annoying penchant for displaying everything in close-ups. The film also benefits from some new realistic exteriors and dressed-down attire, ditching the school uniforms. There’s also a new cinematographer, so instead of Columbus’ dull amber glow, the series takes a gratifying turn toward the menacing, with an emphasis on dreary blacks and silvers.

The best improvement of all, however, was in getting away from the apparent slavish loyalty to the books. The third book is the longest of the three but the third film is the shortest; 15 minutes shorter than Sorcerer’’s Stone, and 25 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets. Thank God. At the rate they were going I thought the next book, Goblet of Fire (700-some pages), was going to be like 9 hours.

So, under Cuaron’’s guidance, Prisoner of Azkaban eschews the unnecessary plot elements and details fans will grumble over but moviegoers couldn’t care less over (Quidditch?). Cuaron’’s film may be heavy with exposition, but it never talks down to its audience. The result is a movie trying to be a movie and not trying to cram in as many details of the world as possible so fans won’t have their feathers ruffled.

The young actors of Hogwarts have definitely been struck by puberty, and it has done their acting a world of good. Radcliffe will never be an exceptional actor but here he presents new and interesting dimensions to Harry demonstrating his arrogance and tempestuous anger. Tom Felton, who plays the snarky blonde-haired Draco Malfoy, appears to be maturing into a ganglier Macaulay Culkin. The one actor that truly seems to have a bright future, though, is Emma Watson. You cannot help but love her whenever she’s on screen and she seems to be developing into a fine actress.

The most notable addition to the adult staff in the film is Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts’ headmaster, Dumbledore. Gambon turns the character from a kind-hearted grandfather type to more of an aging hippie – but it works. Emma Thomson also appears as some sort of psychic professor, teaching students to read tea leaves; however, her entire role seems superfluous unless it impacts future installments (I have not read a single book). Once again, Alan Rickman rules all and needs to get more time in these movies. I don’t know how, but it needs to happen. Thewlis is the most welcomed addition in his pivotal role as Professor Lupin and delivers some of the more dramatic scenes of the film with radiance and ease. He creates a lovely father-son relationship with Harry that supplies Azkaban with a nice sense of compassion. Oldman is similarly great but unfortunately he shows up so late into the film that he seems terribly underused. There is a scene late into the film, where Thewlis, Oldman, Rickman, and the great character actor Timothy Spall share a scene. I never thought it would be a children’’s fantasy series that would finally unite all these talented British stage actors but I’m thankful for it nonetheless.

Prisoner of Azkaban is the darkest tale yet, and Harry Potter works best when things get scary. The nightmarish element design creates a wonderful sense of dread, and Cuaron deftly handles his young characters dealing with rage and death and, scariest of all, budding hormones. There’s even a sly nod to Cuaron’’s steamy coming-of-age film, Y Tu Mama Tambien (it involves a three-way hug between our trio of kids).

he effects of the film are beautiful and greatly add to the entertainment value of the film. The Dementors, cloaked flying guards of Azkaban prison, are terrifying to look at, and their leitmotif of chilling the air when they are near makes for some great visuals and ominous moments. I got actual goosebumps the first time they arrived on-screen, and then when I saw this film a second time, fully knowing the story, my skin still crawled when they arrived. Perhaps the greatest addition to Harry Potter‘s special effects bestiary is the Hippogriff, which resembles a combination between an eagle and a horse. It is a gorgeous creation and worlds better looking than the three-headed dog from the original film. It also provides one of the more breath-taking moments of the film, when Harry goes soaring across a lake on the back of the Hippogriff.

Having said all this, yes Prisoner of Azkaban is the most exciting and visually alluring film of the series, also its darkest, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the central storyline. Most people will love it, especially fans of the books, but after walking out of the theater I could not help but wonder if the film had a climax at all? It really kind of didn’t. There was no sense of real story momentum and the middle had some definite moments of drag. The last act of Prisoner of Azkaban is exactly like Back to the Future Part 2: time-travel, correcting the future, not running into your past selves. This is not a good comparison. So while the characters are getting more interesting as they get older, this plot doesn’t really hold up very well. It almost feels like a preface of whatever events will come in the fourth film.

Prisoner of Azkaban is an interesting watch. I am told it deviates the most from the book and it manages to generate a considerably darker and scarier atmosphere than its predecessors. For my money, any changes are good, as films are about ADAPTATION and not copying, so dispensing with subplots and details is A-Ok with me. But how will the die-hards react? I’m sure you’ll hear plenty of grumbling all over, but Cuaron has injected needed life into this series and presented an idea of what it can grow to be. So, while I think Prisoner of Azkaban has a superior visual sense, pacing, and adaptation; I also feel the story may be the weakest we have been told. I can only imagine what the outcry will be among the fan base when Goblet of Fire is released November 2005 as one film.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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