Noah (2014)

NoahEver since he saw his father killed by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), Noah (Russell Crowe) has been haunted by dreams of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin. When, years later, he witnesses a miracle — a flower which blooms immediately on the spot where a raindrop hits the Earth — he decides to visit his grandfather to seek help in divining its meaning. Together with his family — wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) — he embarks on a long and treacherous journey, during which he saves a young girl (Emma Watson) from Tubal-Cain’s men and is himself saved by The Watchers, Fallen Angels forced to live the rest of their lives on Earth for disobeying The Creator. Methuselah helps Noah to deduce his destiny: to build a wooden arc and save a male and female of every species from a biblical flood.

An interpretation of the Noah story rather than a literal — if literal is even the right word — adaptation of the Bible passage itself, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah faced a storm of its own. Rumours of negative test screenings and alternative versions made it seem that the director’s cut might never make it to cinemas, while unrest in certain religious quarters only added to the tidal wave of ill-will that seemed fated to sink the film before it had even set sail. The movie itself, finally in theatres, is no travesty, however; it’s big and bold and brilliant, and likely to appeal to both secular and religious audiences alike. Noah is a film that simultaneously contemplates creation, finds human drama in divine intervention, and features stone monsters battling an army of sinners. Heck, it has two of just about everything — not just bird and beast. Every frame is so loaded with meaning, in fact, that it struggles to contain itself within two dimensions.

The opening act is as crowd-pleasing as The Old Testament is ever likely to get; it is tense and exciting, packed with incident and brimming with action. Scenes shot in silhouette evoke real ethereal beauty, while the battle scenes are gritty and unafraid to focus on injury detail. Aronofsky is not simply looking to dazzle, however, and what really impresses during these early scenes are the characters with which he populates his doomed world. Noah is obsessed with obeying The Creator, and having tried so hard to protect his family winds up neglecting them in his duty to God. Watson’s Ila, meanwhile, questions her place on the arc, all too aware that as a barren woman she is ill-equipped to repopulating the planet. And then there’s Ham, a boy desperate to become a man; who, faced with the death of every woman but his mother and step-sister, is all but ready to defy his father.

Surprisingly, then, it is only once the flood strikes that the film begins in earnest. Aronofsky handles the special effects and set pieces well (even if the animals are a few pixels short of pragmatic), but it’s clear that’s not what drew him to the project. Aboard the arc, Noah is forced to choose between Father and family; if The Creator wanted to eradicate all of mankind, then Noah’s work can only truly end with his own bloodline. At first he seems happy to let nature run its course, but when Ila defies biology by falling pregnant he sees little option but to act himself, by killing the child should it be a girl. The third act in particular is incredibly compelling, as Noah steels himself for the task at hand, Naameh and Shem conspire to protect Ila and her baby, and Ham is groomed by a stowaway —  Tubal-Cain himself — to turn his back on The Creator. The repercussions of their actions are explored in a prologue, and you almost find yourself wishing Aronofsky would stick around to direct the next book in the series.

Whether or not you believe in God or The Great Flood, it’s difficult to deny that the idea of Noah and his arc is a nice one. Unlike the nursery rhyme, however, this adaptation quickly dispenses with the childish notion of animals marching two by two and instead focuses on the hurt and horror implied between the lines. This Noah is a murderer, a workaholic and a drunk, and thanks to Russell Crowe’s performance you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him for a second. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who starred as Pearly Soames in A New York Winter’s Tale. It seems Noah is about redemption off-screen as well as on.

4-Stars

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This Is The End (2013)

This Is The EndReturning to LA to visit friend and Knocked Up co-star Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel is looking forward to a quiet night in. Upon his arrival, however, he learns that they have been invited to a party at James Franco’s new house, and, reluctantly, accompanies Rogen across town. Before he can convince his friend to take him home, the house is hit by an earthquake, killing various partygoers and leaving Baruchel, Rogen and Franco holed up in his mansion with fellow actors Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride. Read more of this post

The Bling Ring (2013)

The Bling RingIsrael Broussard stars as new student Marc, a young fashionista who after a difficult first day soon strikes up a friendship with Katie Chang’s queen bee, Rebecca. After a spate of thefts that culminate in the burglary of Marc’s friend’s house while he and his family are out of the country, the duo decide to target the houses of high-profile celebrities whose movements can be easily tracked — and their homes cased — on the internet. Following a few early successes, they are joined by fellow students Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Read more of this post

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012)

On his first day of high school, troubled teen Charlie (Lerman) does his best to remain unnoticed as he counts down the one thousand three hundred and eighty four days of high school that remain. Striking up a friendship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), Charlie endures the taunts of his peers as he finishes assignments ahead of schedule, dares to answer questions in class and takes on extracurricular readings. Finally taking the leap and joining a fellow classmate at a game of American Football, he strikes up a friendship with senior step-siblings Patrick (Miller) and Sam (Watson). As he enters into a their social circle and endeavours to embrace his newfound happiness, Charlie begins to deal with the tragic death of his Aunt Helen and the recent suicide of his only friend Michael.

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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.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Eager to make it in the film business despite his parents’ flippant disregard of his planned profession, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) leaves his country estate for London, using his family ties to secure a job – voluntary at first – at Pinewood Studios. Working with Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) on the set of his film The Prince And The Showgirl, Clark takes the role of third assistant director and begins a relationship with a costume girl, Lucy (Emma Watson), before finding himself witlessly drawn into the backstage drama when difficult superstar Marylin Monroe (Michelle Williams) takes a liking to him. Falling in love, Clark recounts his few days as the centre of Marilyn’s word, as he catches a fleeting glimpse of the woman behind the celebrity.

My Week With Marilyn is the perfect title for a number of reasons. Alluding to the icon rather than the woman trapped within her, it foreshadows the film’s prefered level of operation beautifully. While Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn is indeed accomplished, and flits masterfully between the icon’s numerous personae, it rarely even begins to scratch the surface. Always pre-empting a performance, ready to play up for the cameras, there is a decided shallowness to the star which matches the overall tone of the piece. Forever acting, drugged or simply drunk, there is little sense by film’s end that you finally have a grasp on the enigma that is Norma Jean.

Don’t get me wrong, Williams is nothing short of revelatory, much to the chagrin of Branagh’s Olivier. While not exactly a happy role, it is nice to see the actress shed her accumulated cinematic baggage for a relatively whimsical and occasionally comedic turn as cinema’s ultimate sex symbol. Despite its lighter moments, Williams nevertheless manages to bring more than her physical similarities to the part, by turns victim, brand, and the most irritating woman on set.

In such a heavyweight battle, with Branagh’s take on Lawrence Olivier proving every bit a nuanced and well observed as Williams’ irrepressible sexuality and , it would be easy to overlook the self-confessed nobody caught in the middle of the infamous personality clash. While Williams and Branagh give two stand-out performances, this is still very much Eddie Redmayne’s story. From buttoned up country-boy to third assistant director slumming it in a B&B, it is Redmayne’s Colin Clark who undergoes the film’s biggest – and perhaps only – transformation.

While otherwise not necessarily brimming with memorable characters, Pinewood Studios is reliably stocked with talented actors. Whether it’s Zoë Wanamaker’s method mentor, Dominic Cooper’s jealous business partner or Dougray Scott’s prematurely afflicted husband, playwright Arthur Miller, the central relationships are complemented with a number of capable turns, nurturing a quietly insidious atmosphere as Monroe is manipulated from all quarters. Judi Dench and Emma Watson are the only two who really manage to bring any depth to their supporting roles, with both ultimately feeling desperately underutilised.

You’re never going to get to know someone intimately in just a week of their company, much less in an hour and thirty-six minutes. That said, Williams does a commendable job of exploring the many faces of Marilyn Monroe without compromising the film’s wistful tone. Casting capable actors is only half of the battle, however, and Simon Curtis’ film struggles to transcend its light air impromtu intimacy, the story unrefined and burdened with the unfortunate – if authentic – feel of a loved-up young man’s gushing memoirs.

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.