Sunday, 23 February 2014

Saw V (2008)

"They're connected. So in the end all of the pieces will fit together."

Veteran readers of this blog will recall that I blogged the first four of these films four years ago, and rather enjoyed the intricate plotting and clever final reveals that these films have always had. But I always had my qualms, being of a somewhat liberal bent, as to whether John Kramer's brutal attitude to law and order was endorsed by the authorial voice. I finally stopped watching, though, after the gore went a little too far. I'm not very squeamish, but I have my limits.

Still, it's time to return to the final few films in the series, starting with this one: I hate to leave a job unfinished. And it's a good 'un; the plotting is as intricate and superb as ever, with a cruel twist at the end in which Strahm not only dies horribly but is framed for Hoffman's crimes. It was surprisingly good to get back into this series of films; the familiar Twisted Pictures logo put a huge smile on my face.

We begin with a typical torture puzzle from Jigsaw, the details of which, I think, we shall draw a veil over. The difference, of course, is that he does what's required and dies anyway, as it is Hoffman, not Kramer, who is in charge. Crucially, those who, like myself, see absolutely no moral difference between Hoffman and Kramer. They're just different types of psychopath.

Strahm, the poor bloke, is certainly warned from the start not to enquire further, but he is certainly the good guy here. Sadly, though, he's no match for the late, evil, clever Jigsaw, whose control over his intricate plans, and indeed his wife, extend well beyond death. He reminds me very much, I think, of Ian Brady. It seems absurd that the films can continue on and on after the demise of the central character, but they do, and it never feels silly.

Mark Hoffman, meanwhile, is praised and promoted, the smug bastard. At least we know, even at this point, that he will eventually get his brutal comeuppance. We see flashbacks to his first meeting with Kramer, and everything is neatly retconned for him to have been Jigsaw's accomplice all the time. There is a discussion about "ethics" between these two evil men, as Kramer is under delusions that he is somehow less evil; he rages against a "corrupt legal system that puts murderers back on the streets" but, rather revealingly, conspicuously fails to give a monkeys about the wrongfully convicted.

The film centres around an intricate, sadistic trap for a group of people involved in corruption surrounding a building that proved to be a death trap, one if whom is Julie Benz from Angel. It's a clever sequence, in which it is their failure to work together, as intended, which dooms them; the Saw franchise is back on form.

I must say that Strahm's eventual death is needlessly horrific, but this is bloody good. I hope this standard can be kept up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1 (2010)

"You're not still mad at him, are you?"

"I'm always mad at him!"

No more do we get to see any wondrously imaginative and charming scenes of life at Hogwarts: the seriousness has fully taken over, it's war stations from the off, and not everyone will survive. Oh yes, and DOBBIE DIES!!!!!!

This is all very Lord of the Rings, right down to the suspiciously One Ring-like effect of the Horcrux on relations between Harry, Hermione and Ron and, while good, just doesn't feel much like a Harry Potter film. Still, I have to deal with the film as it is and, while I'd have preferred something less grim and gritty, I can't say that it isn't a good film, though by no means a great one.

The stakes are high, as is proclaimed by the very dark visual style of the film. Voldemort, Sauron-like, is about to take over everything and there are so many magical MacGuffins in play here that it's hard to keep track of them, much like the absurd number of acting luminaries that are in this film. One of the more notable is recent birthday boy Alan Rickman, of course; Snape seems pretty unambiguously to be a baddie here, right?

Possibly the second most heartbreaking thing in the film (I don't need to say what the first is, right?) is Hermione's decision to make her parents forget her; she is now an orphan, and homeless. And she now has to fight in a war. It's a terrible burden for one so young.

She, of course, is a "mudblood", and it is a sign of whether one is a goodie or a baddie as to whether one approves of this or insists on racial "purity". This is the nearest the film comes to being "about " anything, really, but the ride is an exciting one, with all of our characters being put through the emotional wringer. Harry, certainly, doesn't have the greatest of seventeenth birthdays.

Snape, now headmaster at Hogwarts, institutes a severe regime, and our heroes are all off to Mordor, or wherever. It's all strangely dark for a children's film, with bleak landscapes and a muted colour palette, although it's nice to see an emphasis on a book of wonderfully childlike fairy tales with stylised animation, the highlight of the film.

Harry's invisibility cloak has never reminded me more of Bilbo's, and Voldemort's attacking forces seem very much like Ringwraiths. But there the Tolkien comparisons end as things get very dark, and very complicated, as various MacGuffins are fought over and poor Hermione  has "mudblood" etched into her arm. How will it all end?

It's a good film, yes. Well made and acted, yes. And yes, I enjoyed it. But the tone is surely a little too dark for a children's film? Still, I can't deny I'm excited about the ending.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

"You know, there are a lot of naysayers who say nay..."

Before I started blogging movies I tended to avoid films with bad reputations, as you do. But at least the prospect of reviewing a bad film after watching it offers the consolation prize of being able to administer a good spanking after the ordeal of watching it. This is one of those times.

I went into this film with predictably low expectations and, inevitably, this film slightly exceeded them- the ending, with reality shifting nightmarishly around our protagonists to make them guilty of terrible crimes that only they know they did not commit, is a good idea that would perhaps have worked well in a better film. Likewise, I enjoyed the metatextuality of the beginning, with all the characters having seen the first film and tourists flocking to Burkittsville as a result; it may be a trick as old as Cervantes, but it works.

Thing is, though, the only thing that works about this film, other than the snippet of Queens of the Stone Age's splendid Feelgood Hit of the Summer, is the meta stuff, and it should have been obvious why. The first film (itself arguably far less well-regarded now than at the time) worked, to the extent that it did, because of it's form, not it's content. If you took away the "found footage" aspect, you'd have a rather pedestrian film. So what do they so for the sequel? They do exactly that. The results are predictable. Literally the best thing about the film is the beginning, promising a metatextuality that doesn't materialise.

I suppose we have a slight commentary on the first film through the character of Tristen, a Wiccan, objecting to the idea of nature being evil, but the characters are generally annoying, forgettable and vaguely annoying all at once; it's hard to emphasise much with the film's protagonists, who are not particularly nice, charismatic or interesting. I didn't even like the female goth character, and that's saying something.

I suppose I enjoyed the sight of the tape of the missing hours, which rather resembled a music video by Tool or Marilyn Manson in its style, and the ending is moderately better than the preceding dullness, but this is very much a film worth skipping.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

“Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.”

I think I may have reached a turning point. I’ve enjoyed all the Harry Potter films, but up until now I have somewhat regretted the increasing seriousness of the films, in contrast to the sense of fun and wonder which the first film had. With this one, though, I may be starting to appreciate the more serious later films without pining for a more innocent past. This is probably because the ongoing plot and character development begins to bear real fruit at this point.

We begin with Harry and Dumbledore and a load of iconic London landmarks, which are looking very cinematic and presented as magical, in a way which evokes Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the works of China Mieville. A bit of a scrap occurs and the Millennium Bridge is destroyed with delightful gusto. It’s an exciting beginning, which sets us up for a dramatic film. There’s a bit of exposition as the pair visit an old pall of Dumbledore’s, Horace Slughorn, who is to be the new potions teacher and who has a very convincing armchair costume!

Probably the most interesting character in all of these films, partly because of Alan Rickman’s performance, is Snape, who has until now seemed to be a red herring. However, a visit from Bellatrix leads to the revelation that he is apparently a baddie! The fact that he later (SPOILER ALERT!!!) murders Dumbledore, is another subtle hint! But for now it’s a shock to see him swearing allegiance to the Mallfoy’s and to Voldemort himself.

Eventually, term finally starts, although not before some argy-bargy in the train (again). Snape is the new defence against the dark-arts teacher and is suspiciously ineffective in the role. There is a new MacGuffin in the form of Tom Riddle’s diary, and a new emphasis on unease between everyone at Hogwarts. Harry’s possessiveness over the diary drives a wedge between him and his friends, while the mutual attraction between Hermione and Ron, what with them being teenagers in a movie, predictably leads to denial and awkwardness between them. Once again, as with previous Harry Potter films, and indeed with Buffy, the moral is clearly that a hero needs friends.

It’s an uncomfortable term, ending on the most uncomfortable note as Harry overhears Snape with Draco. The plot thickens as Harry discovers that Tom Riddle has a past with Slughorn which he is unwilling to discuss. Slughorn is not the only link to potions; in this film they positively abound, and Ron seems to be under the influence of a love potion. Slughorn, meanwhile, is soon the victim of an attempted poisoning. Things continue to go from bad to worse, and Tom Riddle’s diary is a sort of ring to Harry’s Frodo.

Fortunately there is such a thing as liquid luck. There is also such a thing as Hagrid, who is, as ever, a good friend. As soon as the gang gets back together, all friends again, things begin to look up, and for the first time we discover what horcruxes are, and the quest to destroy them all begins. This is, in fact, the beginning of the end of the film series, and a suitable point for Dumbledore, the father figure, to be killed off! This is a shocking event. It seems that Snape was the Half-Blood Prince after all. It is up to Harry and his friends to fulfil Dumbledore’s mission, destroy the horcruxes and vanquish Voldemort.

I enjoyed that. It was dark, but had an epic quality that previous films have not. If the final two films are anything like this then I will enjoy the ride!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

"Dementors in Little Whingeing. What next?"

I really wish these Harry Potter films wouldn't keep getting darker and darker. I miss the fun of the first one. Still, this film is an improvement on the last one and an entertaining viewing, at least. 

We begin with the world of magic infiltrating the normal world of the "Muggles", a potent concept, and with temperature still being referred to in terms of Fahrenheit in spite of the fact that it's the twenty-first century. Harry is expelled, sort of, for portending his unpleasant step-brother from a Dementors but, as he's Very Important, the rules do not apply to him in the same way as they apply to us plebs. Professor Moody comes to his defence, and he's an impressive figure to have on one's side, being the only Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher to retain his post from film to film.

Harry is inducted into the Order of the Phoenix, which no doubt also contains many senior police officers. The word "Witangemot" gets bandied about, which is cool. Things are ominous, and the armies of good and evil are being raised against each other.

There follows a sequence of fun scenes, as Ron's dad discusses Muggles from an anthropological point of view and there's an exciting chase sequence with much CGI and many London landmarks. Harry is tried by a kangaroo court, set up by the increasingly sinister Ministry of Magic. He is lucky to be acquitted, but the mood remains uneasy as school starts and we are introduced to the eccentric and mysterious Luna Lovegood.

The school is gradually taken over by the Gradgrindian tyrant Dolores Umbridge, a tool of the Ministry of Magic played delightfully by Imelda Staunton. Her increasingly stifling rules and regulations slowly weaken the school, banning creativity and teaching to the test in a barbed comment on contemporary British education. When she forces Harry to do lines, in his own blood, on his own skin, we know full well that she's a baddie, and a good one. This is the best film in the series since the first one.

Umbridge is soon appointed "High Inquisitor" to address "seriously falling standards", and much damage is done. The delightfully eccentric Professor Trelawney is sacked on grounds that are pure Gradgrind. There's a mood of paranoia, and Harry one more needs to be reminded that even heroes need help from their friends, even after Dumbledore has been sacked and things look very bleak.

Harry gathers together a resistance movement and trains them in secret, in scenes which seem to have their allegorical roots on political tyranny rather than anything educational. Harry gets a kiss under the Mistletoe, but term ends on an uneasy note.

Snape, everyone's favourite red herring, tells Harry that Voldemort has a mental link with him, and attempts to teach him resistance. Harry, though, is worried about similarities between Voldemort and himself. It is Sirius who has the words of wisdom: "We all have light and dark inside of us. What matters is what we choose to act upon. That's who we really are."

The new term is no better; the sexy but nasty Belletrix Lestrange is one the use, and Harry's little gang is stitched up by snitches, as a result of which Dumbledore is sent to Azkaban. Things seem to have reached rock bottom. All this is rather effective.

Hogwarts by this point resembles Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Snape remains unfriendly to Harry- because, we learn, he was bullied by Harry's dad. Ouch. 

There is, yet again, a final battle, in which Harry, being all heroic and that, refuses the  temptation to kill Bellatrix. Everything is ok afterwards, arguably a little too quickly to be plausible, and all is as it was. We learn of a prophecy about Voldemort and Harry: one must kill the other...

That's more like it. I hope the next film maintains the quality.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

"Ron, you spoiled everything!"

The cast of the Harry Potter films continues to dazzle. This time we have, among others, David Tennant, Robert Pattinson and the sadly departed Roger Lloyd Pack. Again, the cast is noticeably older, as are the characters: we have a typical media teenage romance with Hermione and Ron in the sense that they pretend to hate each other. We have a nod to the fact that British schools, these days, have adopted that alien American institution that is the Prom. And once again we have a film that, while it is no more serious than the last one, is a little more serious and less fun than I would have liked. It certainly looks darker, though, from the opening titles onwards. 

We have the bizarre prospect of a Quidditch World Cup combined with political skulduggery from the Ministry of Magic while Voldemort's Death Eaters stalk the school. Like the Sochi Winter Olympics this is a highly politicised sporting event and, Harry being the hero and all, we just know that he's going to end up winning this Triwizard Tournament thing.

The obligatory new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is one eyed, highly eccentric, abrasive, played by the excellent Brendan Gleeson and, as is also traditional, an obvious red herring. Some traditions never change. The three contestants meanwhile are Victor Krum of Bulgaria, Fleur Delacours of France and Cedric Diggory of the Twilight Saga. Inevitably, Harry too is drawn in. The film starts with "Harry Potter and..." after all.

Unfortunately everyone, Ron included, thinks he cheated, and he's persona non grata at school, something which I'm sure every teenager must have felt at some time or other. Being a teenager is horrible, and being fourteen is generally the nadir of life.

Harry is friendless and pursued by the tabloids, in a storyline which rather nicely parallels J.K. Rowling's experiences with the happily departed News of the World; life imitating art, or the reverse, I wonder?

This film essentially constitutes a quest narrative through the medium of sport, with a bit of teenage angst centred around this Prom thing which the kids seem to care about as though they were in an American high school for some reason.

Ron and Hermione have fallen out big time, as teenagers who fancy each other tend to do in films and telly. But he three friends eventually unite to help Harry; like Buffy, the ultimate moral of the film is that even heroes would be helpless without friends.

There's a final showdown with Voldemort, and a big revelation about the night that Voldemort killed Harry's parents; it was the magic of his mother's sacrifice that saved Harry, magic that has now expired. Cedric is left dead and the mood of the film is left very, very dark.

Harry's final chat with Dumbledore is lacking something; Michael Gambon may be a much-admired actor but he's no Richard Harris.

This is my least favourite of the series so far, and the darkest by far. These two facts are definitely linked. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

"Come now, Harry. The Ministry of Magic doesn't send people to Azkaban for blowing up their aunts!"

Well, this film is different. The kids are all looking older and the more serious tone persists. We have a notorious prison escapee who turns out to be a misunderstood goodie. Politicians are shown to be stupid and cynical- heaven forbid. The plot is resolved by turning back time as per Superman II. There's a new teacher, Professor Lupin, played by Gary Oldman, who is that unusual combination of werewolf and red herring. And we have a new Dumbledore in the person of Michael Gambon.

We begin with a bit of comic relief, though, before the seriousness starts, as Harry blows up his aunt like a balloon. And there's a pub called The Leaky Cauldron where, it seems, Ian Brown from the Stone Roses is randomly seen reading A Brief History of Time.

But it isn't long before Harry is warned that notorious fugitive Sirius Black (I almost wrote Conrad Black!) is after him, we meet Professor Lupin and it's a new school year at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, Snape is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and he isn't very nice, which is as good a time as ever to praise Alan Rickman's performance in these films; he's playing a red herring, and thus gets to play a combination of the two types of character he's best known for playing; the villain and the miserable git. He was born to play this part.

Harry's good at that scary looking Quidfitch thing, apparently, and is promoted to "seeker". But he soon learns the lesson that team sports are not a good idea, especially when it's tipping it down. 

Things get very dark, very soon. There is a magic map. Hagrid's hippogriff is rather harshly executed. And there seems to be a constant theme of memories, and dark memories at that, running through the film. It all goes horribly wrong, but fortunately Hermione is able to turn back time and save both the day and the low flying hippogriff.

I'm not sure about this trend towards darkness and away from fun and quirkiness, but this is nevertheless an exciting and entertaining film, and the acting talent on display is absurdly brilliant.