Rewind Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

The film begins poignantly focused in on Rufus Scrimgeour’s (Bill Nighy) eyes as he declares with voice aquiver that “Dark times are ahead.” It is an apt tone-setter for the remainder of this film that David Yates, who has been at the helm since The Order of the Phoenix, steers into previously uncharted territory.

The film absolutely has to be applauded for resisting facility and showing remarkable restraint and patience with its storyline. When it was announced that the film would be told in two parts, of course, it smelled like a money-grabbing marketing ploy, which has apparently worked, however, once the decision was made it had to be made to work aesthetically and it has.
The young wizarding triad finds itself out of school with no mentor left to find horcruxes, fractions of Voldemort’s soul stored in object that they must destroy, which could be anywhere. Where does one start and how does one remain safe amidst constant threat? This film deals with that. They meander about and in fact hide out much of the time trying to gain knowledge from afar. It’s, to deviate momentarily, one of the lasting images I have of the book, their hiding in the forests and the countryside and this film does deal with that to a great extent.

Yet the information flow is deceptively consistent, it could seem not much is happening but there is a rather even pace being employed throughout, in which, they are slowly acquiring the knowledge they need to better face Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010, Warner Bros.)

With the characters out of the shelter of their ivory tower, one that was hardly impenetrable but where their whereabouts were almost always known, there will not be a tale going from one high-impact incident to another. Yet this film contains more genuine scares than your average horror film because of the suddenness and ferocity with which attacks to occur. Very quickly they find no place is safe.

Yet it does set the table extremely well, which there is room for in a series. For the next installment is surely to be full of fireworks.
It’s a tremendously human tale in which we see these characters, whom we’ve watched grow up, changed and stressed and furthermore we see actors, whom we’ve watched grow up and improve, flex their muscles and deliver their most solid, rounded and complete performances to date.

The rest of the cast as per usual is due their kudos. Firstly, there is Ralph Fiennes who makes tremendous use of the very small allotment of screen time he has. Rhys Ifans is wondrous as Xenophilius Lovegood, first as the tree from which Luna fell not far from and then as a frantic desperate man. Helena Bonham Carter continues to take Bellatrix Lestrange to heights which I thought weren’t possible. Then, of course, there’s Alan Rickman who continues to be deceptively simple in his brilliantly deft performance of the complicated Severus Snape. Also, Michael Byrne as Gellert Grindewald, the elder version, ought not be overlooked for his deliciously creepy short stint.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010, Warner Bros.)

It is quite possible that in a film with seemingly fewer effects shots than most throughout the series that the CG here is the best it’s ever been. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the work done on Dobby who in this edition is one of the most stunningly realistic CG-creations ever.
There is of course the matter of the ending of the film to discuss. Much of the Harry Potter film’s success has, I feel, hinged on the endings. Some of them have been a bit too languid on the last shot. Thankfully none have gone Return of the King. The ending of this film is sheer perfection. If you are going to have a bifurcated tale the first half clearly needs to be apparent defeat for our heroes and a moment of triumph for the villain. You could not imagine a more gloriously chilling conclusion than what does transpire in this installment.

As a kind of aside the film introduces the concept of the Deathly Hallows early and then enters with an explanation late, with a very ingenious and creative animated sequence. It may be the most prominent use the title object in the series in a while. I loved The Half-Blood Prince but who he was and his connection to Harry did become sort of an afterthought considering all the other events that needed to come to fore.

It’s very strange to try and assign a numerical value to any film, as some that don’t receive a “perfect” score stay very near and dear to me, it’s even more difficult for this one. In the end the function of this installment is to inform and make the next one possible. To that end it does the job brilliantly and thus it shall be a 10 for that reason and because I did enjoy every minute. Whether that ranks it amongst the year’s best remains to be seen.

10/10

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Rewind Review- Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a film that dares you to stand up and walk out of the movie theatre and makes you sorely tempted to take that bet. It’s a film that galumphs along on its over-the-top intentionally goofy and self-consciously stylistic way with complete disregard for respecting its audience either intellectually or emotionally.

The cast of the film is not your typical Burton ensemble in as much as everyone is either miscast or misguided. Johnny Depp is convincing in the part of the Mad Hatter but acting does boil down to choices, as does directing, and most of the decisions made in the film with regards to character were unfortunate. Not quite as unfortunate as Mia Wasikowska as Alice – a young Australian actress with a painful British accent and little to no inflection in her voice in this part ever. Crispin Glover is his usual weird self and poor Mairi Ella Challen, as Six-Year-Old Alice, was woefully misdirected into a modern day rendition of Tami Stronach in The Neverending Story. Depp’s character wasn’t the only one who was steered towards the annoying end of the spectrum Tweedledee and Tweedledum were further there than ever before and the March Hare was so insufferable you hope for a cameo by a steady-handed, sharp-witted, eagle-eyed Elmer Fudd.

Unfortunately, the bright spots in the cast were in the smallest parts like Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen and finally Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar. This film goes so far as to waste great talent in small parts like Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky.

Tim Burton’s talents are still readily apparent in this film as are his flaws amongst them are the fact that more often than not he tends to struggle with non-original material, meaning that which he did not write himself. Since Burton has become a Hollywood player his films based on pre-existing concepts like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been some of his weaker and least inspired efforts in which he seemed to be wandering into the world of self-parody.

The film’s disrespect for the audience’s intellect is most clearly demonstrated by how repetitive the screenplay is. It is impossible to count how many times Alice insists that all the events in the story are part of a dream and that others in Wonderland claim she is not the “real Alice.” Surely there are other things that can be conveyed to reach an adequate running time and certainly kids have seen enough films follow the Rule of Three that you shouldn’t feel the need to follow the Rule of Three tenfold throughout the course of this film.

Another issue with the film was that the 3D was unessential to the film and it didn’t add anything at all to the movie-going experience. With the proliferation of 3D films there is more and more of an onus on these films to make it count and not just make it an excuse to charge an extra $2.50 or whatever the case may be. It’s a similar axiom to when black and white was frequently an option for films, filmmakers were told to “have a reason to shoot in color.” Think about it and have one strong, irrefutable reason you need all the colors of the spectrum. Same thing with 3D – think of one strong reason you need the depth, dimension and jumping out at the audience because I didn’t see it.

The CG and animation was consistently inconsistent. There were some things like the aforementioned Jabberwocky which are quite great and then things like most if not all the landscapes are not great. Some of the digital manipulation was good but some was a little off like when The Red Queen stuck something in her mouth her fingers popped out in a noticeably bad way and Tweedledee and Tweedledum weren’t bad.

Despite any technical accomplishment or other cases of slight brilliance it is all washed away by the absolutely underwhelming and unsatisfying emotional experience that this film is. It is a homogenized sequelbot, patent pending, which smashes two books together and focuses on minimalist story and nonexistent character development. It plods along so superficially that you actually become bored which is something that was once seemingly impossible with this tale.

If you want a truly different and unique take on the tale of Alice in Wonderland visit Amazon and Netflix and give Jan Svankmajer’s Alice a chance rather than this. You won’t regret it, “Said the White Rabbit.”

2/10

Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10