Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
It doesn't matter if you're a fan of Harry Potter or not; with the final book in one of the most successful series of novels in literary history, J.K. Rowling unarguably nailed the ending of her story, which was first published fourteen years ago. While far from perfect, Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was pretty much everything a fan could ask for and then some. Despite a middle that drags like an ogre's belly, the seventh and last book of the series tied up loose ends, provided a satisfying conclusion for its characters, and dealt with themes of death and resurrection, redemption, loyalty, friendship, and forgiveness in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. The only question left after fans finished the book feeling fulfilled was this: would the last film in a series of movies just as successful as the books they followed stick its landing in the same way?
The answer is: yes, it does. With reservations, and a caveat that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 does NOT work as a stand-alone film, the final cinematic journey of Potter and pals provides folks who have followed this saga for the last ten years with a finale that makes one's commitment to the series feel worth the time and money put into it. While the film stumbles a bit when its toes first hit the landing pad, by the time the balls of its feet touch down all the shakiness has left its legs.
But first: the aforementioned caveat. The Harry Potter films haven't worked as stand alone pieces of cinema since at least The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the series. That's when director David Yates came on board and was hired to finish what Chris Columbus started and Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell continued. Those coming in blind to Phoenix and each film thereafter would find the story almost impossible to follow. By that time you were either committed as a fan or not.
It may seem obvious that the second part in this two part film feel like a simple continuation of its predecessor - after all, The Lord of the Rings trilogy recently proved that audiences could handle a continuous story told over three films. But those movies each had three distinct acts, and while you can't watch one without feeling the effects of the others, each film supports itself. Deathly Hallows Part 2 has no beginning. In fact, I don't even know if it has a middle either. After starting off with literally the last scene of Part 1, Part 2 simply continues where the last one left off. At least The Two Towers and Return of the King feature opening scenes reminding the audience of the stakes and, at the same time, allow the viewer to find their footing in the story. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 simply begins like we never stopped watching the one before it. It's disorienting, and the first twenty minutes of the film struggles with an awkward pace. Once it finds its rhythm, though, and the audience gets their bearings, the film becomes engaging, thrilling, and moving, despite its lack of plot.
What little plot there is involves Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) searching for the remaining Horcruxes - trinkets or objects villain Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has injected pieces of his soul into. While the three of them journey into the heart of Hogwarts to find these objects, the rest of the school and the adults who run it are tasked with protecting their beloved institution from Voldemort and the Death Eaters - minions of the Dark Lord sworn to find Potter so their master can kill him.
By the very nature of being a Part 2, Deathly Hallows 2/2 is all pay-off. We witness what comes of Ron and Hermione's passive/aggressive flirting, what became of Dumbledore, and what was really going on with Professor Severus Snape. While the middle films in this series dealt with the hardships any normal student would go through (unrequited love, vicious rumors, stern authority figures), there's none of that here. The stakes are as high as they ever have been, and the lives of thousands of students are on the line. There are no school dances to argue over dates at. Harry doesn't struggle with an increasingly large ego. The only obstacle Harry faces in Deathly Hallows Part 2 is death. The death of his friends, his loved ones, and ultimately of himself.
It's thematically dark stuff, and director Yates ensures a sense of dread and finiteness hangs over the proceedings at all times. The first shot of the film (after the recap of Part 1's last scene) is of a tombstone, and there are some horrific moments of violence in the film (some against characters we have grown to care about).
As much death as there is in the film, Yates shoots most of it as it occurs in the background, or in the periphery of the frame. The battle of Hogwarts (which looks quite gorgeous from a technical standpoint, by the way) takes place around the journey of our three main characters, and they attempt to finish what they've started as they run through pockets of violence that claim the lives of their friends and family. In an odd choice, Yates doesn't dwell on the big deaths, sometimes showing only glimpses of the bodies of fairly major characters. Where other directors would opt to squeeze tears from every fatality, Yates understands that the audience understands that these characters have paid the ultimate price to not only protect their friend, but to fight a cancerous evil. Their deaths are unwelcome, but honorable.
The effects of these deaths are felt in the performances of the three leads, who have never been better in the series. Daniel Radcliffe began these movies delivering stilted, unconvincing lines and has finished them as a legitimately great actor. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint don't get to do as much in Part 2 as they do in 1, but they still deliver great supporting work, with Grint ending up as the most improved performer over the past ten years.
As many issues as there are with the splitting of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts (I still believe it was unnecessary), there's no doubt that the past six months have seen a satisfying conclusion to what is the other great cinematic achievement of the last twenty years (the other, of course, being the Rings trilogy). It's a marvel that Warner Brothers was able to keep the same actors around for all eight of these films, recruited solid directors to helm them, and to make sure that, just as the books did, the films grow up with the audience. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 might not be a stand-alone film worthy of revisits by itself, but as a capper to this film series, it works like gangbusters.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Shia LeBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Frances McDormand
Let's get the positive out of the way first: the third Transformers film features the most spectacular destruction of an American city (with the most spectacular special effects) ever captured on film. The final hour of Dark of the Moon features awe-inspiring set-pieces and Industrial Light and Magic's most impressive CGI work in quite some time. Possibly ever. That being said, despite the scope of the catastrophe; despite the movie's unrelenting final reel; despite the fact that every single dollar spent on the film can be accounted for on-screen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon completely and utterly fails as an action movie on almost every level. It's not a career low for director Michael Bay (that would be it's ugly, mean-spirited, racist, misogynistic predecessor - Revenge of the Fallen, a movie that angered me so much after watching it I felt homicidal), but it's proof that just because the guy knows how to blow stuff up impressively doesn't mean he knows how to compose a great action scene. (Or no longer knows. His run from Bad Boys to Armageddon is actually quite good).
The ridiculous plot (or whatever it's called - it's really just a series of story points filmed to get to the money shots) begins as the film tells us that the real reason 'Murica went to the moon in 1969 was because an alien ship crash landed on it years previously. This ship contained some planet saving technology needed by the Autobots (the good guys, for the layman out there) to ensure a win against the Decepticons (the bad guys) in a long-engaged war.
Fast-forward to present day, where Summer's most annoying hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is out of college and trying to pimp himself out to various companies in the real world. He needs a job, but no one seems willing to hire him. No one seems willing to believe he's saved the world (two previous times!) either, even though he received a medal from the POTUS and was called on by the US government in the previous film to help them out. If it's one thing this movie features, it's a stupid human race. How do people not recognize Sam Witwicky? None of the characters (even his new girlfriend!) really believe he kept a race of alien robots from destroying the world - TWICE! - and in fact they mostly look down on him. I understand starting the character off at his lowest point, but it's an illogical thing to do considering the events of the last two films, which featured alien robot vs. alien robot action that was only prevented by the actions of Witwicky. .
Anyway, he ends up getting a job at some company run by John Malkovich (the first in a series of unfunny and unnecessary cameos, although Malkovich's is certainly the least offensive one from a lack-of-laughs per minute standpoint) and it's there that he...aw screw it. All you need to know is that at some point, Witwicky is recruited by the government again because...well...I don't know. He's known about the robots for the past four years in another movie and its sequel, I guess.
I know I know. "It's an action movie, the plot isn't supposed to make sense. And besides, we're not supposed to care about it anyway!", you're thinking. Stop it. You're not that stupid. Michael Bay thinks you're that stupid, but you're not. All movies need to have a plot that makes sense in some way or another. Even action movies. And talented directors (James Cameron, anyone?) know how to weave a great story in with great action. Michael Bay has consistently proven (with at least three films in a row, now) that he's either lost the ability to do so or he just doesn't care any more. Slick spectacle that costs 200 million dollars has replaced genuine filmmaking, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon is definitive proof of that. It's the nadir (at least I hope it is) of Summer blockbusters.
Not only does not one minute of story work in the film, but there's also a plethora of unfunny, relentlessly ham-handed cameos in the film. Normally hilarious (in small doses) Ken Jeong shows up for an eye-stabbingly awful ten minutes, playing a coworker of Witwicky's who is in on this whole "alien takeover of Earth" thing the Decepticons are planning. If you think a small Asian man yelling "Deep Wang! Deep Wang!" at Shia LeBeouf while pulling his pants down is gut-bustingly hilarious, then this movie is for you. John Turturro returns as a bat-crap insane conspiracy theorist featured in an incredibly stupid one-on-one with Bill O'Reilly. Also back are Sam's mom and dad, played by Julie White and Kevin Dunn respectively, and while White doesn't have anything nearly as asinine to do as tripping on pot brownies like the last film, they're still the world's most annoying movie parents, and not in a "wow it's funny because it's true" way. If I had Sam Witwicky's parents, I would kill myself. And Alan Tudyk turns up for some reason as a gay German cyber-hacker of sorts. Again, not funny. Michael Bay knows how to blow stuff up. He does not know comedy.
Speaking of blowing stuff up - as previously mentioned, this film blows more stuff up and blows it up better than any film I think I've ever seen. Except it doesn't matter. The amazing pyrotechnics, the jaw-droppingly gargantuan size of the climactic battle, and the latest and greatest computer generated imagery don't mean one darn thing. Besides Bay not giving a crap about his characters (and, by extension, us not giving a crap either), he simply no longer cares about shooting a logical, geographically understandable action scene. Characters start in one place to confront an obstacle or a foe, overcome it, end up in another place, wash, rinse, repeat. There's no reason for why and how these characters do what they do - or at least no logical reason, anyway - they just do it, and in the process Bay throws some indiscernible group of robots at them to fire advanced weaponry at. Most of the time it's impossible to tell who's fighting who or why they're fighting. Bay fills the screen with lots of explosions and metal and screaming people, but that's it. It's mind-numbing, and it's all the complete antithesis of what makes a great action movie. Sure there are a few moments of absolute brilliance (a tower collapse uses both practical, Inception-like set work and some fantastic CG, and a sky-diving scene featuring base jumpers flying around the city is genuinely thrilling), but these moments are context-free and can't fully be enjoyed because they don't engage in being anything other than technically impressive.
During the last hour of Dark of the Moon I kept thinking back to James Cameron's Avatar, a film that also features state-of-the-art technology to depict a massive battle scene. Cameron, first and foremost, makes sure we care about the characters involved. However, he also makes sure to delineate sides - instead of robots who all have an excessive amount of unnecessary features (making them all look the same), we have the Na'vi, with their primitive weaponry and battle tactics, and the humans, whose machinery is practical and not overwhelming to the eye. Characters have motivations and reasons, we know where they are geographically and why they're there, and the action beats compliment the story. None of that is true in this film.
I could go on and on about how annoying Shia LeBeouf is in this film (but to be fair, he does play quite an unlikeable character) or how empty Rosie Huntington-Whitely is as Sam's girlfriend Carly (any Maxim Hometown Hottie has more depth in one glossy photo than Bay gives Carly in the entire running time of the film), but I've already wasted too much space on this film already. Folks, these Transformers movies aren't good. They're soulless, poorly constructed, downright stupid pieces of entertainment. You're better than them. You deserve better than them. No seriously, you do.