Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The ApesTen winters have passed since Simian flu devastated the human race and left a new generation of uber-apes to inherit the Earth. They are ruled by Caeser (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee indirectly responsible for both man’s demise and the ape uprising, who leads alongside Koba (Toby Kebbell), his trusted second in command. When a small number of humans are found to have survived, however, the relationship between Caeser and Koba begins to fray; mindful of the friendship he once shared with a human Caeser pushes for peace, while Koba insists that they eradicate their one-time abusers once and for all. There is disharmony in the human camp too, with Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wanting to work alongside the apes in order the restore power to San Francisco and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) determined to declare all-out war on Muir Woods.

It speaks volumes about the legacy of Tim Burton’s ill-fated reboot that even after the unexpected success of Richard Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes audiences are still skeptical of the franchise’s modern-day reimagining. This year’s sequel, despite all evidence to the contrary, was widely expected to undo Wyatt’s good work and reinstate the series’ standing as a laughing stock. In reality, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps even better than its predecessor; the title may be just as cumbersome, but everything else is sleeker and even more satisfying than before.

Following a brief newsreel hinting at the scale and severity of the initial ALZ-113 outbreak, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes eschews humanity in favour of ape-kind, checking in with Caeser and the family he has raised over the last decade. The original film was remarkable for a number of reasons, the most obvious being its portrayal of Caeser himself. Serkis is once again exceptional, combining well-observed behavioural ticks and intuitive sign language to give Caeser unmistakable personality. He is this time joined by a number of other talented motion-capture artists too; Kebbell and Greer are terrific as Caeser’s advisor and mate, but it’s newcomer Nick Thurston who ultimately impresses most as his wary son, Blue Eyes.

Despite bravely shifting the focus to Caeser, the emotional centre of the previous film was arguably John Lithgow’s Charles, the Alzheimer’s-stricken father of Caeser’s human guardian. Here, however, the human characters barely feature (though Keri Russell still manages to distinguish herself as a grieving mother), and on this occasion it’s the relationship between Caeser and his son that grounds the film emotionally. The corrupted youth trope is hardly a new one, but the unique setting and singular characters nevertheless lend it an element of novelty, if not originality. Their relationship is as nuanced, touching and sympathetic as any you are likely to see this year.

This is far from a subdued melodrama, however, and Matt Reeves — who directed Cloverfield prior to the rather less successful Let Me In— certainly knows how to stage an effective set piece. This being a prequel we already know roughly what is going to happen, but Reeves still manages to invoke a sense of suspense by keeping the stakes personal and the characters interesting. After a moment of light relief in which Malcolm et al manage to generate enough electricity to power a gas station radio, war returns to San Francisco as the horse-riding, gun-totting apes lead a charge on the virus-resistant human resistance. Chaos erupts as battles break out — human vs. human, human vs. ape, ape vs. ape — and each conflict is as compelling as the one before.

Given the law of diminishing returns, whereupon sequels — let alone sequels of prequels of reboots — regularly fail to live up to their predecessors, it’s all the more remarkable that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as good as it is. With its state-of-the-art special effects, quasi-satirical subtext and measured character study, this is undoubtedly one of the strongest competitors for best blockbuster of the year.

4-Stars

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RoboCop (2014)

RoboCopIt’s 2018, and robot soldiers are in use everywhere except the United States of America. Eager to tap into the domestic market, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is trying to find favour with the wary American public, ultimately deciding that the best way to overcome “robophobia” is to put a man inside the machine. When policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured while investigating corruption within Detroit’s police department, his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) consents to OmniCorp’s planned use of robotics to help save her husband’s life. Under the direction of scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Alex is rebuilt as RoboCop, and tasked with eradicating crime across the city. Despite attempts by Norton to control his creation’s decision-making faculties through cybernetics, however, Alex becomes fixated on one crime above all others: the failed attempt on his life.

Like many Paul Verhoeven films, 1987’s RoboCop was ahead of its time. It foresaw the growth of multinational conglomerates, the rise and dominance of the right-wing media, and the development of drone warfare. Nowadays, what was once science fiction is now much more of a reality, as tech companies, news moguls and unmanned airstrikes proliferate the news. The landscape of law enforcement too has changed, with CCTV, the internet and tagging commonplace in the monitoring of criminal behaviour. José Padilha’s 2014 reboot might not seem quite as intuitive or precognisant, but it feels even more urgent and timely. Back in the ’80s it was technology that we feared — the apparently inevitable rise of the machines — but it has since become increasingly clear that it is not technological advancement of which we should be weary, but the humans driving it.

Cultural context is not the only thing to have moved on since the first film’s release, with CGI having come on leaps and bounds in the intervening years. This has allowed Padilha to push the franchise in a new direction, free from the stilted stop-motion and bulky prosthetics that defined the original RoboCop trilogy. Gone is the humour, both intentional and otherwise, as the film instead pushes for a more realistic and all together grittier aesthetic, which for once seems entirely justified. The events of the film are driven by money, ahead of scientific experimentation or even national security, and it is disturbing to think that ultimately the Murphy family are being exploited for financial gain — particularly as Samuel L. Jackson’s commentator wantonly misinterprets just about everything for his programme’s invisible audience. It creates an interesting dynamic within the narrative, as a man is programmed to stop crime by some of the guiltiest people of all.

Padilha’s film looks amazing too, both referencing the original with nods to the outdated design and also moving the look forward. The new RoboCop — first marketed as a Transformer, before being modelled instead on Nolan’s Batman (with shades of the Tron battlesuits) — is a formidable figure, and one that seems a fair extrapolation from the previous model. What’s most interesting about the character, however, is what’s behind the mask. The most striking scene in the film comes when Alex is awoken by Dr. Norton, pulled from a fantasy and forced to look at himself in the mirror. There isn’t a lot to look at, with only his head, internal organs and a single severed hand having survived the explosion that almost cost him his life, and it pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating to ensure that however awesome or aspirational his alter-ego is made to look you can never quite shake the image of Alex’s naked lungs breathing beneath the Kevlar. Even as he battles a group of hulking ED-209’s in the film’s explosive, exhilarating finale.

RoboCop is even surprisingly moving for an action movie, with Cornish and Norton each getting an opportunity to tug on the heartstrings (though this time mercifully off-camera): the former as she bargains for her husband’s life and the latter as he mentors a young amputee suddenly given the chance to play the guitar again. It is also intelligent, and not just as a satire, with seemingly solid science used to underpin the action. The ‘illusion’ of free will is not simply pseudo-psychology but a popular concept in philosophy and even neuroscience; just as Alex is for a time slave to the machine, or rather those controlling the machine, so many believe that consciousness itself is equally accountable to the human body. Are our actions our own? Or are they simply the inevitable result of various biological, environmental or sociopolitical triggers? If the body horror haunts audience’s nightmares, perhaps the film’s themes will give them something just as troubling to contemplate as they lie awake at night.

It would be unfair to dismiss RoboCop as just another pointless retread, at least in the usual sense. RoboCop may have some name recognition, but the character’s hardly as well-known or widely loved as Batman, Terminator or Judge Dredd (who famously served as inspiration for the character). This feels like a new movie, for a new audience, rather than a futile exercise in nostalgia. It helps that Padilha has updated the story, and though his film may be aimed at a younger audience it feels rather more mature than Verhoeven’s original. Dead or alive? This RoboCop very much has a life of its own.

4-Stars

Lawless (2012)

It’s Prohibition-era Virginia, and Bondurant brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) are struggling in their illicit bootlegging business as the authorities vie for a percentage of their profits. As Jack attempts to court the disapproving daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of a local preacher aided by best friend Cricket (Dane DaHaan), Forrest finds himself falling for ex-burlesque dancer Maggie (Jessica Chastain). However, when a new special agent (Guy Pearce) arrives on the scene and Jack, tired of playing second fiddle to his brothers, crosses local gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) with moonshine of his own, profits quickly become the least of the brothers’ worries. Read more of this post

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Blamed by the citizens of Gotham for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart – in flashback) eight years previously, Batman has been retired from duty while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) exiles himself in the family manor with only butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) for company. The truth is that Batman is no longer needed, the city’s streets the safest they’ve ever been thanks to the Dent Act, a precursor to peace-time that has left the police growing complacent and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) racked with guilt over the hidden truth behind Dent’s demise. Both are therefore caught off guard by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked monolith who has been rallying an army in the city’s sewers. When Batman is dragged out of retirement by a mysterious cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway), a collision course is set that could spell the end of Gotham once and for all. Read more of this post

Batman Begins (2005)

Blaming himself for his parents’ murder years before, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) bides his time until the man responsible is up for parole and then sets out for revenge. Robbed of absolution when somebody else beats him to it, Wayne forfeits his family’s empire and exiles himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he is eventually courted by Ra’s al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) The League Of Shadows. Trained as a ninja and taught to overcome his childhood fear of bats, Wayne returns to butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and his family’s fortune when the organization’s true intention – to destroy Gotham, ridding it of its evils – becomes clear. With pawn Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow) already in place, the newly created Batman will have to seek assistance from DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) if there is to be much of Gotham left to save. Read more of this post

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Er…

Well…

So, yeah.

I’m sorry. I really am. And not just in a ‘you walked in to me, but I’ll apologise anyway…since you’re not going to…to fill this awkward silence’ kind of way, either. I’m genuinely, earnestly sorry, and I really, truly hope that you can forgive me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It wasn’t you, it was almost definitely me.

You see, I was going to read the book upon which you were based. I really was. But then stuff just sort of came up, and kept coming up until one day I walked into the bookshop – all distracted, like – and accidentally bought Bill Bryson’s Home by mistake. It was very good, but it wasn’t you. I was unprepared, you see. I’d watched the loosely related episode of Star Trek: Voyager ten years ago and thought I’d be fine. But I was wrong.

I thought you seemed amiable enough, don’t get me wrong; I mean, you were very pretty and suitably respectable, and I thought your impression of Gary Oldman was impeccable. However, while you had the cigarette smoking and suit-wearing down to an absolute t, you sort of lost me ten minutes into our time together. I realise you were trying to be brief, to be your own beast, to impart the most essential information while leaving out the bits that could be skipped, but I just couldn’t follow your logic. I didn’t feel part of the conversation.

I want to give you another chance though, if you’re willing to have me? I’ll go away and read the book; after all, I’ve only got about three chapters left of the one I’m currently reading, Christopher Brookmyre’s Not The End Of The World. You know, it’s really rather good. And then I’m all yours. I know we got off to a bad start – I was so fidgety and you were just talking so fast – but I do want to get to know you. Everyone else speaks so highly of you, they really do, and I genuinely wish I could see you through their approving eyes.

So I’m sorry that I thought you were uninteresting. I’m sorry that I thought you were confusing. I’m sorry that I thought you completely wasted about half of your amazing cast. I can’t wait to see where you came from, Tinker (can I call you Tinker?), how much you’ve changed; and for you to then prove me wrong.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman returns, but he has once again left his comic book beginnings in the closet with his tights and boy wonder sidekick. Picking up where Batman Begins left off, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is on the case of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an agent of chaos who has set his sights on Gotham and its knights: both white and dark. With Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to choose between two tie-strewn jawlines, the plot mechanics are left to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is being relentlessly undermined by the corruption in Gotham’s police force. Luckily, the Joker isn’t doing very much, contented at first to kill his fellow antagonists in an attempt to try and find out just what makes the man in a bat costume tick. Oh, and there’s a bit set in China.

Having spent nigh on three years now bemoaning the film’s popularity, I suppose it’s about time I revisited The Dark Knight with fresh eyes. Having refused to buy the film on account of not liking it very much, I was finally afforded the opportunity to give it a third and final chance upon arriving home to my brother’s own, different yet equally extensive DVD collection. And you know what, I’m glad I did. Aside from reaffirming my belief that it is not the masterpiece many believe it to be, this third viewing also let me warm to the film in a way I hadn’t expected to. It might not be brilliant, but it’s certainly not terrible either.

Christopher Nolan’s characters are very good at wearing suits. They parade around office blocks and court rooms and roof-tops completely at home alongside the other finely dressed businessmen and women of Gotham City, saying intelligent things and generally being suave and well groomed. The opening scene depicting a beautifully executed bank hiest smacks of Nolan’s trademark narrative prowess, the entire film an intricately crafted thriller which allows those same suited ciphers to trade machismos (“If you want to kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni, I recommend you buy American”/”No more dead cops!”) and pander to some ideological sermon on realism.

And then there’s Batman, our joyless playboy’s masked alter-ego: a bat-eared relic of a bygone superhero age. The Dark Knight is less an ode to a comic book icon than it is an apology, robbing a once great character of all that once made him super in the blind and boring pursuit of grit. A respectable – if unremarkable – crime drama is trundling along affably when all of a sudden a growly Welshman in a plastic fancy dress costume tumbles on-set with a stiff neck and a larynx full of gravel. At this point Nolan’s worshipers proclaim The Dark Knight to be the greatest superhero ever made, a claim I’d put more stock in if Nolan had the confidence to portray the character in all his bat-nippled glory, and not just the elements which gelled with his own personal dogma.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements that work; Lucius Fox interjecting with “submarine” before Bruce Wayne can ascribe his sonar technology to the echolocation of bats is a nice touch. I’m not saying superhero movies can’t be well-made and tackle serious issues, but they work best as allegories, rather than locking their more fantastical elements in the closet and interpreting darkness as a less-than-subtle absence of light. X-Men works because it isn’t a lecture on equality, but a story which addresses it subtextually.

It’s as though all involved ploughed their quota of character complexity into Heath Ledger’s outstanding Joker, leaving Batman to shout incoherently, Michael Caine to play Michael Caine and Maggie Gylenhaal to flesh out Plot Point #13. You see, as able as Nolan is to pander to his largely male demographic with cool choreography, moral quandaries and big explosions, the director is less confident with his female characters; clearly viewing his women as a remedy to criticisms over his films’ sterility. Rachel Dawes emotes and swoons on cue, but without evoking very much of anything. The kiss she shares with Wayne smacks of storyboarding rather than any identifiably human affection; he never earns it and she then never alludes to it.

But my issues with The Dark Knight go way beyond its poor lighting and emotional negligence. You may see this as nit-picking, but when you put something up on a pedestal by calling it a masterpiece, any and all criticism becomes valid. I’m not some kind of gravitas-hating sentimentalist, I appreciate that there is a time and a place for a serious and considered approach – I was hardly criticising United 93 for its absence of laughs – but Gotham? If you want to make a serious crime drama then create one, don’t shoe-horn it into a superhero movie, apologetically brushing the titular character aside so you can have serious discussions about the nature of heroism. All I know is that if I’d been 12 and Nolan had made a Pokemon film about institutional reform, I’d be livid. Anyway, my concerns.

Where did Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow go? Considering how much thought has obviously gone into the screenplay, shouldn’t Dr. Jonathan Crane have been on the boat of criminals seen later in the film? I realise that after having recast Rachel and optioned to model Gotham on an entirely new city there was need for consistency, but it is a jarring omission nonetheless. Why “pretend” to kill Commissioner Gordon? It adds nothing to the film, except for yet another unneccessary plot development that ensures The Dark Knight rises is a few minutes short of neverending. What annoys me most, however, are the double standards required by the film’s supporters. So The Dark Knight is so amazing because it is so ruthlessly realistically? What about the flying? The skyhook? The voice? What about the ridiculous mobile sonar device? These things shouldn’t stand out in a Batman film, but they do.

The Dark Knight is perfectly serviceable; but as a crime drama it is undermined by a man in a bat-costume, and as a superhero movie it is heavily devoid of superheroes. It is over-long, one boat-set display of moral high-fibre too many. The character arcs – on paper – sound highly intelligent and complex, but in reality fall flat? The Dark Knight isn’t the best comic book movie ever made, it’s not even the best Batman film. It’s a good movie, an ambitious movie, but a flawed movie. Like Inception it is an idea, lacking the emotional resonance of a work of art. As a great man once said: why so serious?

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.