Horns (2014)

Horns26-year-old Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is having a hard time convincing the local community that he did not rape and murder his beloved girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), a task made all the more difficult by the pair of demonic horns that have recently grown out of his temples. Worryingly for Ig, nobody seems particularly surprised to see them, and rather than provoking fear they have the unexpected effect of prompting seemingly uncontrollable outbursts of honesty. At first he is taken aback by everyone’s candour, and shies away from encounters with friends and family for fear of finding out what they truly think of him, but eventually he begins to realise the full potential of his newfound abilities and resolves to use them to find the true perpetrator and finally clear his name once and for all.

Adapted by Joe Hill’s cult novel of the same name, Alexandre Aja’s Horns isn’t the easiest sell. Part crime thriller, part supernatural romance and part Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, it doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and runs the risk of being not very much at all. It’s rated 15, and rightfully so, but the film never feel as though Aja is making the most of the higher certificate. Supernaturally, the film seems similarly underdeveloped: it’s never exactly clear what the full extent — or indeed the implication — of Ig’s abilities are, while theologically the film and its themes are almost incoherent. In fact, as with The Woman In Black, it works best as a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, clearly demonstrating just how far the actor has come since his Hogwarts days — even if he remains a pretty unconvincing crier.

Sadly, the rest of the cast isn’t quite as noteworthy. It’s a strange ensemble, unusually lacking in big names and familiar faces. Heather Graham pops up in a small role, but as unexpected and delightful as her cameo is it doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, support comes from Max Minghella as Ig’s best friend and Joe Anderson as his older brother — both of whom may well have had a hand in Merrin’s untimely death. However, while Hill’s book spent arguably too much time exploring the group’s school days Aja’s film essentially glazes over it, meaning that their inter-relationships aren’t nearly as fleshed out as they need to be. Anyone familiar with Juno Temple’s tendency to be the best thing in otherwise unremarkable movies might reasonably expect Merrin to be the exception here, but unusually for the actress her character makes almost no impression whatsoever. She simply isn’t given enough to do.

Aja disappoints too, with an adaptation that doesn’t quite do Hill’s novel the justice it deserves. It’s a funny book, and yet despite the precedent set with his 2010 Piranha reboot the director sadly fails to capture, let alone develop, its sense of humour. Like Piranha, meanwhile, it struggles with what is clearly an insufficient budget. The horns themselves look fine, as does much of the prosthetic work, but whenever CGI is used the effects are nowhere near as convincing. Even the tree house used by Ig and Merrin looks fake, somewhat undermining the (effects-heavy) finale. In contrast, the location used for the town’s timber chute has been beautifully realised and is really quite stunning. Every scene set in its shadow feels grander and more epic, lending one particular set piece more weight and scale than any other.

Ultimately, Horns is flawed but still reasonably good fun. If you’ve already seen The Babadook, and don’t really want to take a chance on Ouija, then it’s a perfectly respectable choice of Halloween film.

2.5-Stars

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Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Kill Your DarlingsThings aren’t great at home: his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is suffering from schizophrenia and his father (David Cross) is determined that she be incarcerated, yet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) decides that the time has come to enroll at university. While at the library, Lucian Carr (Dane DeHaan) interrupts his induction by mounting one of the tables and reciting from a restricted text. Ginsberg befriends Carr and is introduced to his circle of friends, comprising William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and David Kammerer (William C. Hall), an ex lover who now writes Carr’s essays for him. Seduced by their talk of revolution (as well as Carr personally), Ginsberg agrees to help spearhead a new movement in American poetry.

While movies about authors, filmmakers and musicians are a relatively common sight in cinemas, often marketed to mainstream audiences and screened at multiplex venues, films focusing on the lives and times of poets are significantly less so. Outside of the occasional film about Edgar Allan Poe (most recently seen in The Raven) and oddball offerings such as The Libertine, the majority of films about poets do seem to focus overwhelmingly on the beat generation.

Having starred in Howl and cropped up most recently in On The Road, Allen Ginsberg is once again given the movie treatment in Kill Your Darlings, this time portrayed by none other than The Boy Who Lived himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Chronicling the beat poet’s earlier years, from his enrollment at Columbia University to his infatuation with fellow revolutionary Lucian Carr, John Krokidas’ debut overcame a troubled production to arrive on the 2013 festival circuit with appearances at Sundance and Toronto.

Radcliffe fares surprisingly well in the leading role, period clothing and a convincing American drawl helping to sell his more boyish take on Ginsberg. It’s only when he laughs that the illusion is shattered, and you begin to notice that the round glasses look uncannily like those worn by one Harry Potter. Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall are even more impressive, the former exuding waifish charm while the latter plays an obsessed and deluded ex who’s still helplessly under Carr’s spell. None can compete with Foster, however, who is so effective as William Burroughs that you don’t ever recognise it is him.

Although well acted and thematically strong, Kill Your Darlings is unlikely to attract audiences otherwise uninterested in the exploits of an esoteric figure from America’s literary past. Krokidas does at least attempt to widen the film’s appeal, dedicating the last act of his film to the murder of David Kammerer, but even so, the first hour of the movie is still a turgid and rather tedious exploration of what is essentially a specialty subject. This became painfully clear in the press leading up to the film’s release, as savvy editors — apparently more mindful of their audience’s interests — instead chose to focus on a short-lived snog between Radcliffe and DeHaan that the cast were clearly sick of talking about.

Kill Your Darlings is by no means without merit, but even as you admire the performances and appreciate the set decoration it is difficult to connect with the characters discussing Yeats onscreen. At one point Ginsberg is asked by his lecturer why he doesn’t take his fighting spirit to Germany where it might be better channeled into World War II, and as nice as typewriters and libraries are you can’t help but push him for an answer. “Well?”

3-Stars

 

The Woman In Black (2012)

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a struggling young lawyer left to raise a son alone when his wife dies during childbirth. Assigned to handle the late Alice Drablow’s estate, Eel Marsh House, Arthur arranges to have Joseph (Misha Handley) and the boy’s nanny meet him at the property once he has finished that weekend weekend, and departs for the Marsh. Introduced to wealthy landowner Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) on the train, Arthur sorts out his accommodation amidst resistance from the enigmatic townspeople before making his way up to the house alone. As he begins to investigate Eel Marsh’s history, however, Arthur begins to question just how alone he actually is.

The long-gestated return of Hammer Horror has so far been met largely with indifference. With such recent releases as unnecessary remake Let Me In and seedy thriller The Resident failing to impress either cinemagoers or critics, it was starting to look as though the banner might never reach the heights of its much celebrated heyday. Enter The Woman In Black: James Watkins’ adaptation of the Susan Hill novel of the same name. Following in the footsteps of the esteemed stage play, the film offered the studio the opportunity to bring one of literatures most respected ghost stories to the big screen, itself a relative newcomer that didn’t even exist during its own Golden Age.

The film is a beautifully shot, sparingly scripted masterclass in tension and Gothic atmosphere, its stripped-back approach to the genre gifting it with a stateliness and tradition sorely lacking in the torture porn and found footage gimmickry which has come to define the last decade. Rated 12A, it is impressive just how much dread Watkins can fashion from a simple creaking floorboard, a collection of cracked porcelain dolls and other such well-worn clichés. There is nothing new here, and yet it has been so long since the horror genre has been afforded such dignity and respect that a sense of originality ensues regardless.

A meditation on death and loss, there is a depth of character here at odds with the customary buxom teenagers and unbelieving parents. Daniel Radcliffe is quite simply superb as the shell of Arthur Kipps, his apparent youth a technicality robbed of consequence by the tale’s period setting. It is testament to the actor’s growth that Kipps doesn’t merely resemble an unshaven Harry Potter, investigating a Hogwarts outhouse in his dress robes. The character – by turns father, young man and troubled lawyer – is as far removed from the boyish heroism of his charismatic Chosen One as it is possible to get.

If The Woman In Black has any weakness at all it is in the woman herself. Considering the influence of the source novel and the transmedia legacy of the character, her onscreen portrayal is disappointingly half-baked and forgettable. The Woman In Black, rather than claiming her rightful place in the genre pantheon of wicked witches, supernatural slashers and straggly-haired Sadakos, instead hides from view, loitering passively in the shadows until a decidedly disappointing reveal. While her reputation definitely precedes her, and the film makes the most of its maiden’s menace, the payoff never really comes.

A classy and considered chiller, and a welcome return to form for Hammer Horror, Watkins’ The Woman In Black is a jittery and unnerving joy from beginning to end. With one too many shots of Radcliffe walking the same corridor and a resolutely non-physical phantom, however, it never quite delivers on its potently portentious potential to become the classic it perhaps deserves to be.

Films of the Year – 2011

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but one year ago, in a fit of madness, I started a blog. In deciding to name that blog popcornaddiction, I hoped to convey not only a truth about my unrecommendable diet, but also aspects of my palette that were decidedly more cinematic.

I like my movies big, brash and full of the kind of high-octane emotion that leaves women crying incoherently on the floor and men spitting loudly into telephones. Although I like so savour masterpieces and worship at the feet of the auteur as much as the next person, my tastes are predominantly more mainstream. Having worked in a seven screened multiplex for most of my university career, I love nothing more than to have my blocks busted and popcon flicked by the latest tent-pole release.

I realise that this probably makes me less of a critic, and more of a drooling fanboy, but this is my blog and while I do pride myself on relatively broad horizons I have no intention of pandering to some ideal that dismisses 3D and thinks children’s movies are just for kids. As such, my favourite films of the year are unlikely to be representative of other bloggers, critics and journos, and for that I do not apologise. Other opinions are available, but in my own personal opinion they are wrong; X-Men: First Class was fine, Drive was perfectly alright and True Grit was, well, a bit rubbish actually For me it was a year notable for the welcome return of Scream, a surprisingly decent Footloose remake and – don’t judge me too harshly – the ludicrously entertaining Fast Five. In that vein, my pick of the year’s best are as follows:

10. The King’s Speech

I know The King’s Speech has undergone a bit of a kicking since its January release, but still, it won an Oscar didn’t it?  Tom Hooper’s film, which starred a stutteringly brilliant Colin Firth and a surprisingly sane Helena Bonham Carter, proved as profoundly moving as it did achingly funny. Aided ably by Geoffrey Rush’s elocutionist, the filmmakers managed to tell a grand story against a grandiose backdrop while maintaining a humour and humanity which managed to charm even the Fuck Police. A compelling script, subtle direction and triad of exceptional performances conspire to create one truly unforgettable movie with magisterial presence and timeless elegance.

9. Life in a Day

Life in a Day – the cinematic experiment executive produced by both Ridley and Tony Scott – is an extraordinary and ambitious insight into a day in the life of the human race. Compiling and consolidating over 4,500 hours of amateur footage, from 80,000 submissions and 140 nations, director Kevin MacDonald has created a coherent, compelling and delightfully accomplished snapshot in time, an invaluable time-capsule to chronicle the YouTube generation. Babies are born, deaths are mourned, teeth are brushed, animals are slaughtered, rituals are practised and crimes are committed. Thrilling, you might easily scoff. But it is.

8. Midnight in Paris

Having come to terms with the fact that I might never ‘get’ Owen Wilson, it certainly came as a surprise when a collaboration with Woody Allen had me drawn swiftly to my senses. Leaving the cinema at midnight, in Nice, I was utterly enchanted by this tale of nostalgia for some ever-changing Golden Age. Midnight in Paris tells its story with a verve and emotionality that handles the rampant nostalgia with expert precision, boasting enough wit, charm and cameos to keep even the stubbornest Francophile entertained, quickly atoning for the bloated pictorial prologue that precedes it.

7. Thor

The first of two fledgeling Avengers to receive the big screen treatment this year, Thor was always a much more intriguing prospect than July’s Captain America movie. Trapped in development Hell for years, it was always going to be a difficult endeavour breathing cinematic life into one of Marvel’s most outlandish properties, made ever more unfashionable with Christopher Nolan’s recent reign of darkness. With director Kenneth Branagh (an inspired decision on Marvel’s behalf) refusing to shy away from the goofier aspects of the character’s mythology, Thor is a very different – a very necessarily different – superhero movie. And it is all the better for it.

6. The Troll Hunter

Following a slight case of found-footage fatigue – hot off the tails as we are of REC and Cloverfield – you could be forgiven for thinking the genre overcrowded and the format flagging. Rather than feeling tired or derivative, however, The Troll Hunter is an engaging and innovative return to form for a technique caught up in an endless cycle of American remakes and Paranormal Activity sequels. Thrilling, funny and absolutely breathtaking, The Troll Hunter is an unmissable piece of stand-out cinema from director André Øvredal’s. Even if I’m still not entirely sure what it’s called (The Troll Hunter? TrollHunter?).

5. Melancholia

How many times has the world ended now? Ball-point figure? While we have seen it attacked by aliens, riddled with comets, conquered by apes, ravaged by virus and infested with zombies, I for one can’t say I have ever seen the end of the world through recognisably human eyes. Or through the eyes of anyone eighteen or over. While it is undoubtedly not for everyone, Melancholia is a masterpiece in mood and menace, building to a sense of completely hopeless acceptance as Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland’s characters deal with the inevitable apocalypse in different and yet wholly realistic ways.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

To say I cried at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II would be an understatement of Grawp-like proportions. The biggest compliment I can bestow on this final chapter is that it hit me like a bat-bogey hex. It is testament to not only the work of Yates and his team of filmmakers – Alexandre Desplat, I love you – but the underestimated talents of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that a story so high on Pumpkin Juice should ever deliver an emotional punch of such ruthless affect. As we leave Hogwarts for the last time – awash with rubble and barely recognisable – it is with the utmost closure on what really has been the motion picture event of a generation. I’m welling up again just thinking about it.

3. The Guard

I don’t really like comedies. I tend to find studio offerings like Tower Heist and Just Go With It too broad to make anything approaching an impact, while this year’s Bridesmaids embodied everything that isn’t funny about genre maestro Judd Apatow’s sense of humour (except the bit where they all shat themselves, LOL). John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, as with his brother’s sister movie In Bruges, however, managed to deliver solid, hearty laughs without ever resorting to the ruinously try-hard schtick that plagues most contemporary comedy. Lampooning cop shows, subverting comedy conventions and gently poking fun of Irish culture, The Guard was unarguably the most fun you were likely to have in the cinema this year.

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Something has happened. Something bad. Lynne Ramsay’s Kevin is – almost from birth – a truly terrifying creation. Ezra Miller’s performance is cold, calculating and counter-intuitively compelling; he is perfectly horrifying without once raising his voice, jumping out of the shadows or making that petrifying clicking noise attributed to cursed Japanese children. From its matter-of-fact title to Ramsay’s bi-linear adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel, this is no-frills masterpiece-making at its most devastating. There is no period dress, no operatic over-emotionality and no delusions of grandeur, just an exquisitely unrelenting build-up of tension that deserves – heck, demands – your recognition. All of it.

1. Super 8

Super 8 has it all: production values, solid stakes and performances that more often than not leave you utterly speechless. The film – both within the film and the feature itself – is as fun to watch as it looked to make, the nostalgia and unreserved love that has gone into each frame making it onto the big screen. In a sea of superheroes and sex-comedies, Super 8 is a breath of old air; compelling, heart-stopping and packing some seriously impressive performances, J. J. Abrams’ latest is the best Spielberg movie Spielberg never made. And then some.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (2011)

Bloody Hell, as Ron Weasley might have said. Ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars and look where it’s taken us: full circle.

So, without further ado, now the conclusion…

With three Horcruxes down and just four to go, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must pick up where he left off if he is to defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) once and for all. Bartering with the goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) – entry into Bellatrix Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) vault at Gringotts for the sword of Griffindor – Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must utilise all they have learnt in order to make it past the extensive security. Recognising Voldemort’s presence in the cup of Hufflepuff, the trio are betrayed and left to make their own way out of the wizarding bank – swordless. Cue: dragon.

Parting ways with the Ukrainian Ironbelly, Harry’s connection with Voldemort indicates that the next Horcrux lies within the walls of Hogwarts. Assisted by Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, Harry, Ron and Hermione are shown the way back into the castle, lead through the secret passageway by none other than Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Identifying the remaining two Horcruxes as Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem and the Dark Lord’s pet snake Nagini as the remaining Horcruxes, the trio split up in search of both the diadem and a means to destroy it while the school’s staff, students and the Order of the Phoenix prepare Hogwarts for battle.

There will be some, the odd soul as yet uninitiated with J. K. Rowling’s celebrated source material, to whom the above might as well be conveyed in Parseltongue. All this talk of Horcruxes and Hogwarts, Hallows and Hufflepuff, must read like utter Gobbledegook. Should that be the case, and it is certainly no fault of mine or director David Yates’, I offer this series of retrospectives, links to the rentable film series and the novels before them. One decade on this is our world, just as you wouldn’t tune into the last episode of Lost and expect it to play like the first.

If you’ve stuck with the series, literary or cinematic, endured the duff notes on and off the big screen and embraced the wizarding world, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I did all the leg work, getting us just where we needed to be. My reservations regarding the previous film’s end-point proved ill-conceived, a quick session of plot 101 and we’re good to go, the momentum left to build until we’re veritably hurtling towards the finale. This is the shortest Potter movie of the lot and it certainly feels it, with little water left to tread we all too soon find ourselves back in Hogwarts, the end achingly nigh.

To say I cried at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II would be an understatement of towering proportions. The biggest compliment I can bestow on this final chapter is that it hit me like a bat-bogey hex. It is testament to not only the work of Yates and his team of filmmakers – Alexandre Desplat, I love you – but the underestimated talents of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that a story so high on silly should deliver an emotional punch of such ruthless affect. Both in its epic grandiosity and its treatment of reconciliation and tragedy, the film positively brims with emotional resonance.

If you are devastated at the sight of death, touched by the respect of what came before – CORNISH PIXIES! – or humoured by the richness of character (Helena Bonham Carter was born to do Emma Watson impressions), it is unlikely you will enjoy a more fulfilling experience this year. Already likable presences, Harry, Ron and Hermione now have complete dominion over your affections, whether you have read the books are aware of their fates or have simply followed the actors this far, the bond of their friendship is one of the most moving fictional relationships imaginable. While some characters might not achieve the life – or death – that they deserve, the treatment of the central trio is nothing short of perfection.

This is ultimately Harry’s story, however, and while a certain kiss might warm the cockles of your heart it is Radcliffe’s journey that will set them on fire. The depth of character is simply astounding, Rowling’s creation brought to life by an actor who – once upon a time – could barely rub his scarred forehead with much conviction. That he even survives the appallingly misjudged prologue – every bit as cringeworthy as it is in the novel – with his dignity intact just goes to show what majesty Radcliffe has over his character.

That this much nuance and character development is achieved in the shadow of a bombastic pyrotechnic or rampaging giant just serves to illustrate the richness of texture. This is a war movie and it delivers incredible bang for its buck. As a camera tracks our heroes’ movements around the castle, in and out of crumbling corridors and over bloodied corpses, the background detail truly astonishes. The escape from Gringotts – already a impressive spectacle in its own right – pales in comparison to the battle of Hogwarts, so awash is it with familiar faces, breathtaking action and proclivity for surprise. While J. K. Rowling’s blueprints serve the story well, Yates’ eye for an arresting set piece works the material beautifully, finding a new – but forever faithful – alchemy of his own.

I honestly couldn’t have asked for more – well, I suppose I could have but that would just be ungrateful – Yates delivering a movie which honours the past, respects the books and finally gives Alan Rickman something to do other than spout elocution lessons.  As we leave Hogwarts for the last time – awash with rubble and barely recognisable – it is with the utmost closure on what really has been the motion picture event of a generation.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Having watched just about every father figure he has ever had unceremoniously Avada Kedavra’d, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is eager to complete the rest of his imperative mission alone; to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes (shards of He Who Must Not Be Named’s soul). With Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) resolute in their loyalty, however, the trio are soon wandering the streets of muggle London bereft of any safe place to hide. Securing a Horcrux from the Ministry of Magic, our heroes’ progress is stunted when it quickly proves immune to normal magic.

Injured in the escape from the Ministry and buckling under the influence of the locket Horcrux, Ron struggles to cope with trio’s lack of direction, fleeing the camp after having grown increasingly jealous of Harry and Hermione’s apparent closeness. In his absence, Harry and a distraught Hermione visit Harry’s birthplace in a desperate search for answers, hoping that the Sword of Gryffindor – a weapon capable of felling Horcruxes – might be hidden there.

Leaving Godric’s Hollow with another tidbit of information and eventually regrouping with a repentant Ron (who helps Harry retrieve the sword from an icy lake before destroying using it to destroy the locket), the three of them visit Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans) regarding a strange symbol he was sporting at the wedding of Bill (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fleur (Clémence Poésy), one which has since cropped up in a book left to Hermione in Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) last will and testament, the headmaster’s old letters and the graveyard where Harry’s parents were burried. Introduced to the story of the Deathly Hallows, three items which give the bearer dominion over death, the trio are soon on the run again when it turns out Lovegood has been compromised. Certain that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is after one of the Hallows – the near-omnipotent Elder Wand – Harry realises that he is runnig out of time, a certainty that jars with their capture and imprisonment at the hand of the Malfoys’.

Having vowed at the end of the last movie not to return to Hogwarts for their final year, but to instead track down each of Voldermort’s remaining Horcruxes, it was clear that this would be no ordinary slice of Potter. Though we may begin – as is custom – with a stint at the Dursleys’, the usual hijinks are replaced with a sombre tone as the muggles are shipped off for their own protection. Intercut with scenes showing Hermione and Ron saying one last farewell to their home comforts, composer Alexandre Desplat intricately unites these pre-title sequences with an ominous score which foreshadows the trials ahead and the cumulative gravity of the trio’s plight.

And what a plight it is. Opening with a daring rescue from Privet Drive, one that costs two lives and a Weasley’s ear, the scene is barely set when Harry and Hagrid are thrust into the thick of it atop Sirius Black’s enchanted motorcycle – last seen in the very first movie, almost exactly a decade before (sniff). This is followed by an escape from a Burrow-set wedding and an escape from the Ministry of Magic, a series of accomplished set pieces which shock as much as they impress. Lying in the middle of an autumnal forest, soaked through with blood, it really is harrowing stuff watching Harry choke and Hermione calm a wounded Ron.

Split in two to accommodate the sizable plot of J. K. Rowling’s final tome, this first instalment of the finale doesn’t suffer to the same extent as its predecessors from the transition from page to screen. While it is undoubtedly a welcome change to view the whole story rather than just an abridged, time and money-sensitive interpretation, what’s more of a relief is David Yates’ quieter and less invasive innovation. Gone are the fan-baiting omissions and needless additions, replaced instead with a series of timely and well observed character beats which – if anything – improve on Rowling’s own take on the story.

Each of the central three characters get their own moment to shine, with Ron charmingly lost in a world of Shaftesbury Avenues and cappuccinos, Hermione delighted with her own brilliance (if less than impressed at her hair-dressing skills) and Harry stepping up to the plate to console his heartbroken friend in dance. These are small moments, but they conspire to flesh each character out in the face of the cacophony of loss and destruction awaiting them in Part II. That we don’t see Hogwarts once lends proceedings a freshness and freedom that sets it apart from its predecessors not least in terms of setting but in terms of palpable jeopardy and suffocating dread as well.

While the saga’s cinematography has drawn some attention before, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is without a doubt the best-shot instalment in the series (courtesy of Eduardo Serra), if not one of the best-shot films of last year. Whether framing massive action set pieces, establishing shots or fleeting character nuances, the film is an absolute wonder to behold. Panning across a room-full of Harrys at different stages of Polyjuice transformation and detouring into the horror genre for an inspired snake attack and Horcrux…thing, the diversity on show is simply astounding. This is never truer than in the animated sequence illustrating the story of the Three Brothers, a breathtaking excursion from the main narrative that radiates true artistry.

Making no allowances for Harry Potter laymanism, it really does feel as though the end is nigh. The story has reached a critical mass, bringing together plot and characters from each of the preceding instalments so that they might advise, inform or die in the name of narrative. Ollivander (John Hurt) is plucked from his wand shop in Philosopher’s Stone, Dobby (Toby Jones) returns for the first time (in the films, anyway) since Chamber of Secrets, Lupin (David Thewlis) crops up from Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire‘s Fleur Delacour is marrying Bill Weasley, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton. Boo!! Hiss!!) apparently survived the Order of the Phoenix and our very own Half-Blood Prince (Alan Rickman) nearly steals the show with an expository cameo towards the beginning.

With Part II looming this cumulative character base will only grow, the prospect of the titanic Battle of Hogwarts promising to juxtapose the contemplative nature (amid explosions, obviously) of this opening chapter with the wall-to-wall action of the next. Having grown up exquisitely, the Harry Potter franchise has outgrown its standing as a mere adaptation, it is – without a doubt – a phenomenon in its own right, uniting national acting treasures with a standard of storytelling and post-production unmatched by the rest of the summer season. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars, the Harry Potter franchise is unmatched in its ambition, like the Sword of Gryffindor only taking in that which makes it stronger.

This is it then, it all ends here. While Part I can only truly be judged in conjunction with Part II it nevertheless justifies the decision to split the final book into two films through its sheer magnificence, a near – heck, whole – masterpiece of family genre entertainment in its own right. Moving, engaging and utterly inspiring, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is a high watermark and tough act to follow. With the trailers and TV spots for Part II promising dragons, giants and lashings of resolution, this really, genuinely promises to be the motion picture event of a generation. Not bad for a story about one boy and his lightening shaped scar.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Voldermort is making his presence felt, not only in the wizarding world but with the violent destruction of London’s Millennium Bridge. Returning to Hogwarts, even Professor Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) ability to protect his students is drawn into question when a series of attempts on the headmaster’s life backfire on the school’s student body. Convinced that it is Malfoy (Tom Felton) who is behind the attacks, having seen him inspecting a vanishing cabinet at Borgin and Burkes, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has a hard time convincing his friends that Malfoy might be given such an important assignment by Voldermort. Dumbledore, meanwhile, is far more concerned with teaching Harry a proper subject for once: history.

Using a Pensieve to share a series of memories with Harry, Dumbledore is troubled by a memory sourced from the new Defence of the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Tasked with retrieving the unedited memory from Slughorn, Harry uses his fame to infiltrate his teacher’s self-important Slug Club. Discovering that Tom Riddle was looking to split his soul across seven items – and certain that he may have succeeded – Dumbledore takes Harry to the alleged site of one of these Horcuxes with the intention of destroying it like Harry destroyed the diary and he himself had destroyed the ring. Escaping with it to Hogwarts, Harry is shown to have been right as Malfoy ambushes Dumbledore with a series of Death Eaters, killing him.

David Yates, only the second director to return for another glass of Polyjuice Potion, picks up where he left off with the celebratory cries of Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) ringing through the opening sequence, having just murdered her cousin. Haunting and evocative, the echoes of Order of the Phoenix immediately invoke the oppressive atmosphere invoked by the end of the previous movie. From this point on, Yates does his best to balance the impending darkness with a cavalier portrayal of teenage life – namely through his focus on “sex, potions and rock and roll”. It is a winning duality, providing our best insight yet into the central trio’s core relationship.

The soap operatics work beautifully, as Grint and Watson are finally given more to do that mug and scowl respectively. Their growing jealousy of one another provides a nice escape from the impending sense of doom, each student allowed to mature into young adults in a way that feels remarkably organic and within character. Radcliffe is exceptional in a role that finally allows him to stretch his funny bone, the scene in which he mourns the death of Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) pet acromantula while high on liquid luck really endears the character in a much more engaging way than previously attempted. It is the scenes set across The Tree Broomsticks and Slug Club gatherings that really impress, however, with the sexual politics and maturing inter-relationships fleshing out the friendship in a way that expertly ups the stakes for the coming war. You really start to fear for the characters.

It isn’t just Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that impress, however, with the franchise continuing to introduce interesting new characters even at this late stage in the game. Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) both provide winning comic relief as differentially successful love interests for Ron and Hermione respectively. Jim Broadbent, meanwhile, is marvelously mistrustful as the new potions master (Snape has finally claimed the Defence Against the Dark Arts position), Professor Slughorn. With the exception of a few early duff notes from Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore (come on Professor, try!), it is quite amazing just how solid the performances have become.

David Yates’ relatively gung-ho approach to the script does begin to grate, however, with a number of key scenes dropped in favour of a needless, invented-just-for-the-movie scene in which The Burrow is inexplicably destroyed by Death Eaters. Citing a concern for repetitiveness, Yates even went so far as to remove the final battle – quite despite the fact that the decision to split the final film in two would end the next film on a different note entirely. Whether because of my general disregard of the sixth book (goodbye and good riddance to Harry’s belly-monster) or the wealth of consolation on offer, however, I’m more forgiving of Half-Blood Prince than I am of Order of the Phoenix. Subjective, yes, but this is a retrospective.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, then, is the perfect quasi-penultimate instalment. The calm before the storm, it really is an absolute pleasure to spend some quality time with Rowling’s extraordinary creations before they depart on their crusade against Voldermort’s scattershot soul. With Nicholas Hooper returning to score the film – his enchanting Dumbledore’s Army theme thankfully in tow – and boasting the awesome cinematography of one Bruno Delbonnel (the pensieve-set scenes are a work of art), this really is family entertainment at its best.


Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Using Cedric Diggory’s death as an excuse to plant one of their own in Hogwarts, The Ministry of Magic exerts its influence over the school with the instigation of Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as High Inquisitor. Convinced that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has not in fact returned and that Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was lying in an attempt to undermine the minister, Cornelius Fudge – through the Daily Prophet – has begun a smear campaign aimed at sullying the names of the headmaster and his poster boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). When Umbridge bans the use of spells in lessons, fearful that Dumbledore is trying to amass and train an army, Harry must take matters in his own hands if he is to prepare his classmates for the Dark Lord’s return. Dubbing themselves Dumbledore’s Army, Harry and his peers use the castle’s Room of Requirement to train themselves in an array of useful spells.

Caught in the act by Umbridge, Dumbledore takes the blame for the organization and escapes arrest leaving the High Inquisitor in charge. Envisioning his godfather Sirius’ (Gary Oldman) capture and torture at the hands of Voldermort, Harry convinces Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to accompany him to London to rescue him. Stopped again by Umbridge, threatened with the Cruciatus Curse if he doesn’t come clean about his plans, Harry and Hermione conspire to lead her into the Forbidden Forest under the pretense of showing her Dumbledore’s “secret weapon”. Instead leading her to Hagrid’s enormous half-brother, Grawp, they escape back to the castle where they regroup with Ron and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), along with Neville (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). Arriving at the Ministry only to discover Harry’s visions a ruse, the students are ambushed by Death Eaters, who need Harry in order to retrieve a prophesy for Voldermort. Saved by Dumbledore and the newly reformed Order of the Phoenix, a force for good which fought Voldermort the last time he rose to power,  there is no longer any denying that Voldermort is back and more powerful than ever.

Having inherited the thickest book in the series when Mike Newell left after Goblet of Fire, David Yates was left no option but to trim everything but the core narrative, laving Steve Kloves’ temporary replacement as screenwriter Michael Goldenberg no option but to rise to the challenge. Gone is Lockheart’s cameo (and the subsequent introduction to Neville’s parents), the Quibbler subplot and much of the finale, with Yates ultimately responsible for one of the most abridged adaptations of the series.  However, although I may be more disappointed than most to see these scenes go – Order of the Pheonix will always be my favourite book – even I have to admit that the resultant movie isn’t a total disaster.

Imelda Staunton is absolutely phenomenal as Delores Umbridge, proving every bit as hateful and churlish as Rowling’s written equivalent. Dressed entirely in pink and with a monstrous mean-streak, Umbridge’s brand of subdued villainy is a welcome alternative to Voldermort’s maniacal evil. When Voldermort does enter the fray, however, he doesn’t disappoint, no small feat considering the excellent handling of his introduction in Goblet of Fire. The climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldermort is absolutely breathtaking, the increased roles enjoyed by the supporting cast finally giving them something to get their teeth – and wand arms – into.

Daniel Radcliffe meanwhile has the difficult task of treading teenage angst without stumbling into more arrogant or petulant territory. Considering just how unlikeable Harry could have appeared, it is to the actor’s credit that he never lets the hormones win. He duly rises to the role of mentor, the scenes set in the Room of Requirement steeped in authority and control – his kiss with Cho Chang beautifully handled as mistletoe springs from the ceiling. Cheesy, yes, but undeniably sweet and charming too. Quizzed on the experience by Ron and Hermione, it is genuinely delightful to take a moments break from the action and exposition to glimpse just why these three people have stuck together despite the considerable danger their friendship puts them in.

With war looming the wizarding world really comes into its own. While Luna’s unique brand of comic relief ensures that it’s not all doom and gloom, the introduction of Bellatrix LeStrange and the reformation of the Order of the Phoenix really example the depth and intricacy of Rowling’s extraordinary vision. Bonham Carter’s stunning performance – particularly the scene in which she greets Neville Longbottom almost as an old friend (she tortured his parents into insanity) – really forces you to sit up and take stock of the mythology’s burgeoning maturity. The last act’s infamous fatality – and the devastating effect it has on Harry – is so fraught with emotion that it is easy to forget that this is a saga that started out with Nimus 2000s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

While I might gripe at a few duff notes from Kathryn Hunter’s Mrs. Figg, a heavily abridged finale which leaves most with little to do and – in my opinion – the miscasting of Evanna Lynch as Loopy Lovegood, these are the arbitrary complaints of a fastidious fanboy. What David Yates has done – and will continue to do throughout the rest of his tenure as director – is take the phenomenal foundations laid by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and build an immersive experience the likes of which have rarely been seen. Despite whatever acting shortcomings, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become their characters, and it’s fantastic to see how the trio might interact when they’re not sitting in class or dodging three-headed dogs.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Returning to Hogwarts after attending the Quiddich World Cup with the Weasleys, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is looking forward to a year without incident. With Hogwarts hosting the Triwizard Tournament, the school welcomes students from the Durmstrang Institute and Beauxbatons Academy of Magic for the duration of the competition. When the time comes to appoint each school’s competitor, however, Harry’s name is called as an unexpected fourth contender. Acting as a binding magical contract, Harry has no option but to enter the competition and compete with the other, older and more experienced students.

Jealous of Harry’s apparently endless fame, Ron (Rupert Grint) severs ties with The Boy Who Lived and refuses to aid him in the tournament, forcing Hermione “I’m not an owl” Granger (Emma Watson) into the unfortunate role of intermediary. Left to overcome a dragon, navigate a lake-full of merpeople and beat his competition to the centre of an enchanted maze, Harry nevertheless succeeds in making it to the Triwizarding cup first. Deciding to share his success with fellow Hogwarts competitor – Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) – they are unexpectedly transported to an unfamiliar graveyard. Revealed to be the doing of one of Voldermort’s (Ralph Fiennes) Death Eaters, Harry watches as Cedric is murdered and his own blood taken to resurrect the Dark Lord. Escaping back to Hogwarts with Cedric’s body, it is discovered that that new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, Alistair Moody (Brendan Gleeson), had been kidnapped prior to the onset of the school and replaced by a Death Eater in disguise tasked with leading Harry to the Dark Lord.

Mike Newell took over from Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, his desire to make a traditional British boarding school movie bringing a new flavour to Hogwarts. Cutting out more subplots than ever before – the Quiddich World Cup is introduced but never shown while Hermione’s S.P.E.W. crusade is dropped entirely – the Goblet of Fire often feels rushed and incomplete. Required to introduce an unwieldy number of new characters as a result of the Triwizarding tournament, a number of the film’s cast are sidelined almost completely to make room, this being the first film to skip Harry’s summer vacation at the Dursley’s.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire still has a lot going for it however, the Triwizarding tournament paving the way for some of the franchise’s most thrilling sequences to date. While it has been largely trivial uses of magic which have impressed to date – an enchanted car here, some vanishing glass there – Newell’s fourth instalment provides our first indication of exactly what wizards are capable of. The dragon chase is spectacular, while the underwater sequences are quite simply breathtaking. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Yule Ball casts each of the three friends in a new light, the social awkwardness and teenage hangups proving welcomingly familiar in a world of exploded aunts and talking fireplaces. It is the final reveal of Voldermort which impresses most, however, with Ralph Fiennes breathing some real menace into the character, a brilliantly creepy (and noseless) embodiment of pure evil.

It is testament to Newell – and, by extension, Rowling too – that four movies in the franchise still proves so awe-inspiringly magical. As the winged horses carrying the Beaubaton students glide into view, the boat housing the Durmstrang pupils rises from the depths of the Black Lake and Mad Eye Moody hoists himself into the Hogwarts grounds, Newell’s eye for the epic really comes to the fore. While Fiennes’ introduction of Voldermort is undoubtedly the performance of a half-life, it was Miranda Richardson’s turn as the slimy-sexy Rita Skeeter that really left my inner fanboy aflutter. Tragically left out of the following film, Skeeter is everything I wanted her to be and more.

With so much ultimately lost in translation, Newell’s Goblet of Fire is the easy target for criticism. Frenetic, informal and lovingly lensed – I mean, it’s utterly gorgeous – however, the film serves its purpose in the franchise with such gusto that one small Quiddich World Cup seems a small price to pay. It really is to the credit of producer David Heyman that each new director – a variable about to settle with the arrival of David Yates – has managed to bring something new and important to the franchise. In Newell’s case, that something is a truly iconic villain, the creation of which will undoubtedly stand the test of time as one of cinema’s best.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will open at the close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Having stopped Lord Voldermort twice now, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has attracted the attention of a new threat – a black dog which seems to be stalking him around Little Whinging. Returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) – the man believed to be responsible for betraying his parents to Voldermort all those years ago – has escaped Azkaban, spurring the Ministry of Magic to detach a number of Dementors to protect the wizarding school. Unusually susceptible to the creatures’ influence, Harry receives lessons from new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in how to protect himself – using an apparently effective combination of charms and chocolate.

Seeking revenge on Black with Ron and Hermione once again in tow, Harry’s perception of the truth is drawn into doubt by the revelation that it wasn’t Sirius, but Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) – who has been hiding out as Ron’s rat, Skabbers – who gave Lily and James Potter’s names to He Who Must Not Be Named. When Sirius is captured and sentenced to suffer the Dementor’s kiss, a fate worse than death, Harry uses one of Hermione’s time-turners to relive the day and save his godfather from his horrid fate.

Now in the hands of Alfonso Cuarón, the Harry Potter franchise was finally able to establish an identity of its own, other than as a mere extension of J. K. Rowling’s literary phenomenon. Taking the executor’s axe to a series of expendable subplots – much of Black’s backstory is cut along with the exact nature of the Marauders – Prisoner of Azkaban is much more streamlined than Columbus’ films, boasting a slimmer running time despite the increased size of the third book.

The simplification of the film’s plot allowed Cuarón – hired due to his outstanding work on Y Tu Mama Tambien – to show a renewed focus on character. As such we get our first real suggestion of the burgeoning attraction between Ron and Hermione, as well as a glimpse at Harry’s darker side – epitomized here by his desire for revenge. Often considered the best book in the series, Azkaban is also viewed by some as being the best film, with a series of exquisite action set pieces, an astute handling of the last act’s horror beats and a brilliantly ambiguous performance from Gary Oldman marking this one out from its predecessors.

Considering that much of the film takes place over the same day – repeated due to the time-travelling subplot – the film builds up a truly impressive momentum as it nears its Dementor-trouncing conclusion. Unavoidably darker than the films directed under Chris Columbus – the werewolf transformation scene is delightfully Hammer Horror – the film drags our heroes into their teenage years with a greater focus on Harry, Ron and Hermione’s lives outside of school hours. A darker Hogwarts called for a darker headmaster, and with the tragic death of Richard Harris prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, Michael Gambon inherited the half-moon spectacles in a rather inspired piece of casting that would stand the franchise in good stead for the more turbulent instalments to come.

That said, Prisoner of Azkaban belongs to Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and – well – not Prongs obviously, but the first three certainly. Oldman, Thewlis and Spall play beautifully off one another, their antagonism (not least with Alan Rickman’s Snape) leading to some of the most memorable and compelling scenes from the franchise to date. Holed up in the Shrieking Shack with an injured Ron, a terrified Hermione and an interrogative Harry, the surviving Marauders play off the younger cast-members to truly impressive effect. When the movie is so clearly capable of such hefty and dramatic notes, however, I can’t help but wish Cuarón hadn’t deemed it necessary to have Harry repetitively faceplant whilst on the Nightbus. Twice. What a total buzzkill.