Three Capsule Reviews
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
This isn’t really a movie, per se. It’s half a movie, but not half a movie in the way Kill Bill Volume 1 was half a movie, in that it’s not a purely infuriating exercise in frustration. Still, it doesn’t really feel right. I mean, there are good individual moments, and the cast additions continue to be inspired (this time around we get a few scenes of some Bill Nighy awesomeness and great moments from Rhys Ifans; this is legitimately the most well casted movie franchise I can think of by a good margin). The film is beautiful to look at, especially in an IMAX setting. The three principle actors have grown into their own in the roles, and offer probably their best performances yet. And, despite all this, it’s still kinda wrong. The pacing is haphazard and features quite a few moments of overlong quiet that aren’t really necessary. I’m getting the feeling that what we have on our hands here is a two-part film that should really be a one and a half part film. I think it’s a strong possibility that while the film certainly could not have fit into one film in any sort of recognizable fashion, it also probably doesn’t have enough content to be stretched into two full 150 minute films like it has been. The middle portion of this film, which is predominantly spent with Harry, Hermione, and Ron slogging through the woods lost and confused about how to continue their journey, can get pretty painful at times. The attempts at levity, like the dance scene that for some bewildering reason features Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “O Children” as its soundtrack, generally feel awkward, like the film is pacing time toward the ending moments so it can feel like it earned its two-part status. The real question is going to be whether, when viewed concurrently as one film, the pacing will feel more natural. With what we have right now, the slow pace of much of the proceedings is harmed by the lack of a climactic ending.
Some of the individual set pieces are pretty fabulous, specifically the escape sequence that comes right before the film ends abruptly. But the true highlight, the number one reason to see this thing despite my misgivings in the previous paragraph is the way the film plays out the story of the three brothers, the central expository piece of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows overall. Exposition is a tricky thing. It’s often completely necessary, but its necessity also usually involves a fair bit of clunkiness in actual execution. It’s a lot easier to pull off in the written word, as a third person omniscient narration can simply explain what’s going on without breaking the flow of the action. It’s expected and pre-established by the format itself. However, when the medium in question doesn’t allow for such easy narration, things get sticky. Sure, the television and film mediums have the ability to cut out quite a bit of the descriptive exposition from a written piece by just showing the object and letting the eye take over, the act of explaining what’s going on in the plot to a character cannot be done so easily. It usually involves coming across some sort of disinterested expert on the subject who proceeds to explain what’s going on in a study in front of a roaring fire while everyone sips brandy and listens with rapt attention (or something like that). The exposition of what the Deathly Hallows exactly are takes place late in the film and is achieved by Hermione reading a fable that explains what they actually are. The visuals take over while Hermione reads in the background, and what unfolds in front of the eye is a wonderful piece of animation, as the story is acted out by silhouetted puppets that look and move in a marionette sort of style, as the brothers and a wickedly twisted looking Death do battle over the years. It is undeniably the most exciting single scene that’s been mounted in probably the entire seven film run of the franchise, and is strongly reminiscent of the story at the beginning of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which also happens to be the best part of that film. I could easily say that this scene alone is nearly worth the price of admission, but that empty feeling that pervades when the credits roll is tough to swallow. It’s good, but it’s not good enough. Hopefully part two will help save it.
Obviously, this one isn’t for the faint of heart. Everyone knows by now (considering it’s based on a true story from 2003) that Aron Ralston escaped from the boulder trapping his hand for five days by cutting it off at the forearm. The film does not cut away from this moment, and shows the entire amputation in great detail. One specific instance involving a nerve actually forced me to look away, which is quite the achievement, as I feel I’ve become generally desensitized over the years. With that said, this is a challenging film. The vast majority of it consists of watching James Franco trapped by a boulder in a canyon. By himself. It’s claustrophobic, to say the least. It’s also a fascinating character portrayal, as Franco’s Ralston starts things out pretty calm and collected, knowing he has a good amount of food and water for the immediate future and should be able to get himself out of this. It’s the slow realization that there was no easy way getting out combined with the emerging panic that he is legitimately looking at the possibility of his own death.
This film hinges entirely on James Franco, and he’s equal to the task. His experience is peppered with flashbacks and hallucinations, some moments seem real before the wool is pulled out, others are actively fabricated. He records video diaries that start with a matter-of-fact tone and quickly devolve into madness. One particular moment plays out with him as a guest on a talk show in his thirst addled mind, which is a shot of explosive humor and sound amid the silence and occasional screams. What’s interesting about the film, the structure, the acting choices, the way Danny Boyle approaches the character and the story, is that it’s not designed to be particularly inspirational. Ralston isn’t portrayed as heroic, but instead as what he truly is, a survivor. There is no fabricated tear stained girlfriend wondering where he disappeared to leading to an emotional reunion. There isn’t even a musical cue when he escapes. Just silence as he staggers back, not fully comprehending that he just saved himself from certain death. It’s a long shot from the usually hyperactive Boyle, and it’s exactly what was needed to sell the moment as something special and perhaps inspiring, but not in a movie cliché sort of way. I’m still not completely sold on Boyle’s work; I don’t consider myself a fan of Trainspotting or Millions and (probably because of that) still haven’t seen 28 Days Later or Slumdog Millionaire, but the work he did here was really good. So I might have to dig a little deeper. More than worthy of a viewing, but those with claustrophobia issues might have some problems with the premise.
Like many of us, I’m a huge fan of traditional cel animation for films. Disney is one of the many studios that seems to be almost completely abandoning cel animation for full CG, which makes sense considering how much control the animators have over their product. No painstaking drawing of frame by frame. Simple manipulation of wire frame characters and suddenly you’ve got a scene (obviously there’s more to it than that, but the point remains). What seems to have been somewhat lost in this transition to CG is the traditional Disney princess trope that has been around forever. There was a bit of a revival in the past few years thanks to Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog (both of which, interestingly enough, had traditional cel animation), but we hadn’t seen anything before that since 1998’s Mulan (which wasn’t exactly stellar). Tangled, which is the 50th official Disney animated film (with a title card at the beginning denoting it as such and everything) is the first CG Disney film to take on the trope. And boy does it ever. To call the plot of Tangled ‘by the numbers’ would probably be an insult to the numbers. Absolutely nothing surprising happens until the end. Every beat is expected. All the same characters are there, from the roguish, down on his luck male protagonist to the imperiled princess to the evil stepmother to the anthropomorphic animals (in this case, a horse and a chameleon, who thankfully don’t have speaking roles). And yet, despite knowing EVEYTHING that was going to happen, it was pretty darned good.
The one thing that comes across when watching Tangled immediately is a prevailing sense of enthusiasm from everyone involved in the project. They know it’s not going to change lives, and they know that everyone knows what’s going to happen at all times, so they up the ante by filling every moment on screen with an irresistible energy. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do a fine job in the leading roles, with Donna Murphy being particularly awesome as the villainess of the picture. What’s most refreshing, though, is the way the animators made the active choice of making sure that the whole film feels like it’s cel animated, even if it isn’t. The way the characters move and interact with each other and the setting is strikingly similar to cel animation, and evokes the feel of a classic Disney animated film. Tangled is very much a throwback in this sense, a window into a mostly bygone era. Disney recently announced that they were going to shy away from fairy tale films unless they had some sort of unique take on things, which I wouldn’t even necessarily say is a bad move. In those 10 plus years between Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, I don’t think anyone was desperate for more princesses. But that doesn’t stop Tangled from being a fiendishly entertaining slice of nostalgia. Are the songs great? Not really. Is there an ounce of originality anywhere in the plot? Not as such. But there are certainly much worse films out there, and this is an excellent genre film execution of a formula.
Tangled was the second 3-D movie I saw in theaters. The first, Coraline, was a wonderful experience, and gave me hope for the format in general. Tangled, on the other hand, didn’t really do much for me. What I loved about Coraline was the sense of depth involved in the use of 3-D. Objects would pop out toward the audience, but they would also sink into the screen just as much, creating a sensation not unlike watching a play. Tangled’s 3-D plays out mostly in front of the screen, and while it’s fine on its own, it’s nothing special and certainly not worth the added ticket expense. Yes, there are some cool moments, such as a lantern floating tantalizingly close to the viewer, but it still feels fakey, forced. My initial opinion on 3-D animated films was that they were spurious at best; it just can’t be the same as photographing real three dimensional objects in space. There couldn’t be any real sense of depth that you can have with something you know is really there occupying three dimensions. It feels like a pop-up book instead of a play. It certainly didn’t ruin the experience or anything, but it’s not at all necessary. I don’t think we really need every film to be in 3-D, and part of me hopes that the 3-D aspect of Green Lantern fails in such a way to discourage people from abusing the technology. Obviously, when used with care it can have incredible results, but we’ve all seen what can happen when it isn’t implemented well. Tangled is sort of a middle ground. There’s nothing repulsive about the 3-D in a Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender sort of way, but it definitely didn’t need to be in 3-D and didn’t really gain anything out of it beyond an inflated box office. And maybe that’s the point. But it’s not a very good one.
So, in review: Harry Potter 7A doesn't really stand on its own, 127 Hours is pretty great, and Tangled is an enjoyable little romp.