Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Recent Movie Roundup 14

It's been rather quiet around here, I know, and will probably remain that way for a while yet.  In the meantime, some of the movies I've seen recently.
  • Hanna (2010) - What a strange film this is.  The premise makes it sound like The Bourne Identity starring a waifish teenage girl, and that's not an inaccurate description, but what it leaves out is how little the film seems to care about any of the plot or character beats suggested by this description, and how much emphasis it places on its visuals.  Joe Wright--an unlikely choice for an action director--directs Hanna half as an art-house movie, with long wordless shots that take in the film's frequent changes in scenery (the frozen tundra where Hanna grows up, the Moroccan desert to which she escapes from a CIA rendition facility, the grey gloom of downtown Berlin), and half as a music video, composing the many fight sequences as if they were dances (the Chemical Brothers's fine but often too-present soundtrack does little to diminish the impression that Hanna is a very long video clip with lots of dialogue).  None of this is bad, but along the way the film leaves by the wayside nearly all of the connective tissue that might tie these sequences to one another.  Though there are nice scenes of personal connection in the film, particularly when Hanna hitches a ride with a talky, bohemian family and befriends their daughter, there's never a good sense of what kind of person Hanna is, what she wants, besides doing her adoptive father's bidding and killing his enemy, and whether she ever comes to feel ambivalent about this mission, and as her good and bad guardians, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are ciphers.  The result is a film that feels like a succession of well done and occasionally very good set pieces rather than a story, and thus less than the sum of its parts.

  • Jane Eyre (2011) - I'm probably more enthusiastic towards this latest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel than it deserves, because it's the first version of Jane Eyre I've seen that has managed to crack the book's problematic structure--the fact that though the two chapters that flank Jane's experiences at Thornfield are essential to our understanding of her character (and to Jane Eyre's being more than a melodramatic romance), adapting them in full tends to bog down the story.  By using Jane's sojourn with her cousins as a framing narrative from which she can flash back to her time at Lowood school and Thornfield, screenwriter Moira Buffini gives that chapter its rightful importance (and allows the character of St. John Rivers, so often shortchanged in adaptations of the book, his full complexity, which is ably conveyed by Jamie Bell--he's simultaneously appealing and creepy) at the same time as she develops the events that led to Jane leaving Thornfield.  It's a clever, elegant solution that nearly obscures the fact that the film is otherwise a solid but not very exciting adaptation.  Mia Wasikowska is good but perhaps too muted as Jane, and Michael Fassbender does his duty by Rochester without approaching the complexity and contradictions of the original character--his version of the character is a stock tragic hero, equal parts dashing, noble, and roguish, which serves the film perfectly well but is a cruel reduction of the character as Bronte wrote it.  Aside from the innovative flashback structure, the film proceeds through the novel's high points and important scenes respectfully, but with little flair.  It's a good adaptation, but by no means an essential one.

  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) - Despite being repeatedly disappointed by the Harry Potter films, I kept going with the series until the fifth installment, but even though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a better adaptation than its predecessors, doing much to curtail the excesses of one of the most troublesome books in the series and delivering one of the films' highlight performances in Imelda Staunton's Dolores Umbridge, as soon as the book series ended I found myself much less interested in anything Potter-related, films included.  The hoopla over the film series's end, however, and surprisingly positive reviews for the final film, piqued my interest enough to make it seem worth catching at the movie theater.  Before I did that, though, I had to catch up with films 6 and 7a, which very nearly convinced me to let 7b slide.  Half-Blood Prince suffers from much the same flaws as all the other Harry Potter films before it--it's rushed, overstuffed, and made almost lifeless by the need to cram so much information into a generous but nevertheless insufficient running time.  Somewhere during that process, the actual Half-Blood Prince story, which was my favorite parts of the book, gets truncated, which leads to a rather nonsensical final confrontation between Harry ans Snape (and completely short-circuits the almost-connection they forge through Snape's old potions textbook).  Deathly Hallows Part 1, meanwhile, is just as lifeless but for reasons that have more to do with the book--the extended running time granted by the money-grubbing decision to split the final film into two is wasted on the one book in the series with almost no interim climaxes before the final one, and the notoriously dull middle segment of the book becomes even more so on screen.

    In both films, however, there are brief scenes--Horace Slughorn recalling a gift from Lily Evans in Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Hermione dancing after Ron's departure in Deathly Hallows Part 1--in which the story suddenly comes to life.  They give a sense of the kind of Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves might have created if he'd taken a less detail-oriented, more holistic approach to the books.  (And if he'd had an easier task laid before him: I'm not a great admirer of Kloves's adaptations, but that's not to say that any other screenwriter would have done a better job.  Not only do the books feature dozens of subplots revolving around dozens of characters, and change tone significantly over the course of the series, but Kloves was writing his adaptations as the series was being written, and lacked the foreknowledge that would have told him what to cut and what to stress from the outset.)  Kloves clearly has a sense of the essence of Harry Potter, even if that sense is sometimes divorced from the books (for example his obvious conviction that Hermione should end up with Harry, and in fact that she may be the actual heroine of the series), and the movies only breathe when he allows that sense, rather than specific plot points or lines of dialogue, to guide him.

    Which is a big part of the reason that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is actually, and to my great surprise, a pretty good film.  The bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of Hogwarts, and the combination of relatively little material to adapt (especially once the decision is made to excise Dumbledore's backstory and truncate Snape's) and unity of time and place give Kloves a lot more room to extemporize and put his own stamp on the story.  Not all of his decisions work--the film follows in Half-Blood Prince's footsteps in that the actual Deathly Hallows are given short shrift, which means that Harry comes back from the dead through what seems like writerly fiat, and pairing up Neville and Luna, though sweet, is precisely the sort of too-neat solution that Rowling wanted to avoid when she declared that the characters do not, in fact, end up together--but others, such as the expanded role the film gives to Luna and Neville separately, and the fact that the story frequently moves away from Harry's point of view to show us the battle from multiple perspectives, are very effective.  The film as a whole is exciting, moving, and perhaps most importantly, an entity in its own right, one that draws from the Harry Potter books but has a life apart from them.  It's what the films should have been from day one, and though it's a bit sad that they only managed to accomplish this in their final installment, better that than never at all.


David P. said...

Right on about Hanna. It's an experiment and worth supporting, but from what I've read two major creative forces went opposite ways. Joe Wright wanted to make a "fairy tale". The script apparently lacked all "fairy" aesthetics of the final film. The location of the climax was discovered way into production purely by chance.

What breaks my heart about Hanna is that the best parts ARE the relationships between her and her father and the British family, yet we get so little of it and NO epilogue. Wright desperately needed a editor.

Paul said...

I thought the eighth Harry Potter movie did very well for what it was. A lot of the choices it made were the result of choices they had made in previous movies coming back to roost. They excised the Percy subplot earlier, so that reunion was cut from the film (though the movie audience has enough emotional attachment to Fred and George that Fred's death really should have been shown). They eliminated a lot of S.P.E.W., so Ron and Hermione have to share their first kiss after being hit by an inexplicable wall of water. More positively, they stuck with their casting decision of Alan Rickman as Snape, while very different from the book's Snape, and that casting finally worked for me. Probably because, as you say, this and the third movie were the ones that were most "freely" adapted.

Overall though I came away disappointed. I felt the movie had horrible pacing (though this could be said for most of the movies and pacing was a problem in the book as well), and was far too willing to sacrifice character moments for special effects. The problematic deal between Harry and Griphook was eliminated, as was Harry using the Cruciatus curse on one of the Carrows after he spit in McGonagall's face. Fred's death happened off screen and the Molly/Bellatrix duel was horrendously shortchanged. And in return we got a scene of Neville on a bridge everyone knows is going to blow up the first time we see it, a battle between CGI giants and stone centurions on another bridge and a drawn out fight sequence between Harry and Voldemort where Harry somehow holds his own magically against one of the greatest wizards of all time. Also the Ron/Hermione/Neville battle royale against Nagini when Nagini's death scene in the book was so much more poignant.

I'm probably being overly fannish and complaining because the scenes that made the books come alive for me weren't given the attention I would have given them. I kept coming back to the books because of the characters, not the bombastic magic and the movies definitely valued the latter. But it's hard for me to keep the books and movies separate, since the latter are so mechanically dependent on the former. I think I'd join you in wishing that the creative team had gotten more freedom from the beginning. It would have been interesting to see an adaptation like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings - loving, but not slavishly devoted.

E M Pedersen said...

"It would have been interesting to see an adaptation like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings - loving, but not slavishly devoted."

I have the same lower regard for the action-movie retooling which Peter Jackson gave my beloved favorite novel as I do for the flashy interpretation of Harry Potter 7.2. LOTR has a lot of redeeming features which elevate it above HP, but the element that dragged most for me in LOTR likewise hurts HP; namely, poorly-done fight sequences. In HP's case, I think I wanted more magic and less gun-fighting. A more faithful adherence to the original material regarding Nagini and the death of Voldemort would have helped, too.

Dan Hemmens said...

which means that Harry comes back from the dead through what seems like writerly fiat

Were I feeling glib, I might suggest that this isn't actually much of a deviation from the book at all.

To be momentarily less glib, there's no evidence whatsoever that it's the possession of the Deathly Hallows themselves which allows Harry to survive Voldemort's killing curse, indeed it's strongly implied that the Hallows are a kind of Magic Feather.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I wouldn't want to suggest that Rowling's handling of Harry's resurrection is particularly deft, but at least it's something - even a magic feather is better than "sure, Harry, you can come back to life if you want to". Are we meant to believe that nobody else who died during the series (or even the last minutes of the movie) wanted it badly enough?

E M Pedersen said...

Isn't the implication that Voldemort merely kills the piece of himself that's in Harry and not Harry himself? My reading of the situation was that because Harry had the piece of Voldemort's soul (whatever *that* means), any attempt Voldemort made to kill him with the killing curse was doomed to fail. She didn't spell it out very well, unfortunately.

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