Friday, July 29, 2011

Ranking Potter: #7 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Chamber of Secrets has reopened. Enemies of the heir, beware.

Something’s trying to keep Harry away from Hogwarts in his second year – and when he finally does make it back, we find out why. The Hogwarts equivalent of an urban legend, the chamber of secrets is back in play, and whatever its unleashed, is preying on the students – and other inhabitants of the school. At the same time, Harry finds a diary that opens into a world 50 years in the past, but while he unearths secrets about some of his closest allies, the narrator himself might be an unreliable one.

Chamber of Secrets was the slasher-killer book of the Harry Potter series. The whole premise of characters being picked off one by one was transported from the Scream series into the Hogwarts setting with wonderfully chilling results. There’s a constant sense of dread that the book maintains ever so well right – amplified by that scene where the History of Magic class is shaken out of its stupor by a Chamber of Secrets question.

While the Potter movies have often failed on some level to accurately recapture that intangible sense of wonder that permeated the books, this was the movie that made this fact the most glaringly obvious. This was the chance for Chris Columbus to set right some of the mistakes he’d made with the first installment - namely the drudging faithfulness to the text and the unwillingness to take artistic risks. Instead, so lost is he with recreating the minor details, making sure that as little is left possible on the editing table, that we pretty much miss the forest for the trees. With more commitment to keeping the plot chugging along like clockwork, the ominous atmosphere is replaced by simple forward momentum. This isn’t necessarily fatal for the movie – just disappointing considering what could have been.

But our concerns must lie with what we have, and here Columbus’ instincts do give us the joys of Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Gilderoy Lockhart, of a majestically created Chamber of Secrets, and the painstakingly crafted visuals that bring Hogwarts to life. Whatever Columbus may be criticized for, he succesfully created the visual palette that future directors would use as a platform to ascend greater creative heights.

Friday, July 8, 2011

So Long, Mr. Potter

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times.

The release of the final Harry Potter film is upon us. In less than 3 weeks, it really will be over. I know for many of us it all ended with the release of Book 7 – but the Harry Potter movies have been worthy enough translations to merit atleast a fraction of the respect, and thus a fraction of the elegiac response that the books met with at their culmination. Eight movies, four directors, each with their unique vision, be it Alfonso Cuaron’s poetic whimsy or Christopher Columbus’ slavish textual faithfulness. The cream of the British acting crop – and a trio of younger performers that started out wooden, and grew before our eyes (grew with us) steadily maturing as actors.

If the legacy of the books was the resurgence of a love of reading amongst a generation that was steadily weaning itself away from the written word, the legacy of the movies will be their meticulous attention to detail, the protective nature of their craft – a protectiveness some would argue stifled the larger artistic vision of the directors. Yes, a portion of the magic of the books doesn’t make its way to the screen, but isn’t that the general lament for book to movie translations? And yes, the Lord of the Rings made for a more successful translation – but, well, Eragon, The Golden Compass, Inkheart (to name a few fantasy adaptations) were famous disasters. The Harry potter movies didn’t always soar, but they never failed at what they set out to do. Film by film, director by director, they realized the wildest figments of our collective imagination, and maintained an unwavering level of quality. Even before Deathly Hallows Part 2 releases, the Potter movie franchise will have gone down in history as the most successful movie franchise of all time, with a combined gross of $4.47 billion.

Starting this week, I’ll bid farewell to the movie series in the run up to the July 15 release by doing a retrospective of the Potter films. We won’t go in chronological order though – I’ll rank them, starting from my least favourite right up to, well, Prisoner of Azkaban (obviously). I’m hoping to have atleast some level of disagreement with my choices here – do pitch in with where you think the movies place. And let’s all hope that on July 15, Cuaron is finally displaced once and for all, from the top of the list.

Till then, I leave you with Dumbledore’s profound words -

Nitwit. Blubber. Oddment. Tweak.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Jon Stewart is right: no matter what Tom Hanks does, he'll never stop being adorable. Even in mediocre, boring movies with a hackneyed plot where he is simply not giving a fuck.

The eponymous Larry Crowne (played by Tom Hanks) is one of those annoyingly cheerful chaps working in the lower echelons of a movie-Walmart, always telling people what to do and generally bustling around the place. Except, he loses his job because he does not have a college degree. So he decides to go to college and there he rides a scooter, changes his wardrobe which automatically makes him cool and his financial woes are magically solved. Or something.

My first problem with this movie is that it's a boring-ass, utterly forgettable movie with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Seriously, I watched it two weeks ago and I am having a hard time remembering even the major plot points. Second, why would anybody in their right senses attempt a back-to-college-with-quirky-classmates film after the TV show, Community pretty much redefined the genre?

And needless to say, the plot is largely irrelevant and somewhere around the 40 minute mark, dies a sad, lonely death (probably in a Dickensian poorhouse). So this film is about Larry Crowne who is like a major loser because he's like, totally straitlaced and buttons up his shirts and everything, and then he heads to college for an economics course (taught by Prof. Hirohito Comic Relief) and a public speaking course (taught by Prof. Julia Love Interest), because these courses will now magically throw open the gates of employment for him.

While in college he meets a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who has no concept of personal space or privacy and rides around with a group of "bikers" i.e. people on scooters. Larry's wardrobe is changed, his furniture moved around a little, his trash taken out and voilĂ ! Larry Crowne v0.2 reporting for duty!

You're probably going to say, "You're shitting me. That's IT? That's all the movie is about?" Okay, to be fair they do spend five minutes on that bit where Larry is totez diligent and doesn't let all that scooter riding distract him from academics and then he aces the courses and the professors' eyes well up with tears as they proclaim him king of the college, etc.

Oh and there's also that "romance" between him and Julia Roberts. After watching this movie, my respect for JR has shot through the roof. She carefully chose this role because, not only did she phone it in, but the character required her to phone it in. Seriously. She plays a middle-aged, somewhat drunk, mostly disinterested professor who shows up to class, mumbles some words in the direction of her students and is back home before the ice in her cocktail has melted. There's also a bad husband tucked in somewhere, but really, at this point nobody was giving a shit and they ran out of film, so Tom Hanks and Julia kissed and proceeded to collect their cheques.

Somebody please get me a bottle of whatever Julia was drinking through the film.


Who hasn’t dreamed of walking along the Canal Saint-Martin with a charming companion, sometime during the 40s? Obviously, it will be raining and a lone busker will be playing an appropriate tune on his accordion. The charming companion (who is a secret agent working to bring down the Vichy Regime) will then take off his smart jacket and drape it on my shoulders and then whisp… er, ahem… what was I talking about? Ah yes, nostalgia.

We are all guilty of wishing we lived in a different era, often because they are imagined to be a simpler or better time (for me, it’s a toss-up between candy-stripers and flappers). But it is only because we are fairly confident that we cannot actually be transported back to that time. Deep down, all of us escapists and romantics know that our nostalgia is nothing but a fear of the vague uncertainty of the future. Let’s face it: reality can be awfully depressing and the present is always the worst time to be born, but indoor plumbing, antibiotics, equal rights and the internet make life sweet.

However, it takes a special kind of artist and fellow romantic like Woody Allen to desist from being cynical about such nostalgia-seekers. Only he would think to remind us that even the greatest minds of history were dissatisfied with their times and that it is okay to dream of a better yesterday.

Owen Wilson plays a self-avowed Hollywood hack trying his hand at writing a real piece of literature: a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. He visits Paris with his fiancee, Rachel McAdams and her staunchly Republican family and he is swept away by the small cafes where, presumably, intellectuals hold forth over bottles of cheap wine, romantic garrets where tormented artists ought to live and gramophone records with a story. His fiancee on the other hand, is all set to settle down in a swanky Malibu condo and thinks that rain is something that gets you wet and miserable and destroys those gorgeous pumps. After a small disagreement with her, he ends up walking along a cobbled street, when the clock strikes twelve and a 1920s era Rolls Royce pulls up and the passengers invite him to a party. It isn’t any old party: it’s a party for Jean Cocteau and the guests are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Audacious? Absolutely. Silly? Not even for a second.

At some point in the movie, Gertrude Stein says that writers cannot be defeatist. It is their job to lift the reader from the crushing depression of reality and Woody does this marvellously: this film encapsulates all the virtues from his greatest works. The whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the wit of Manhattan, the cheekiness of Mighty Aphrodite and the overwhelming joy of Everyone Says I Love You (which, coincidentally(?), happen to be all my favourite works of his).

If Woody Allen stopped making movies tomorrow, this film would be a fitting epilogue to his oeuvre. Owen Wilson is just a young, less neurotic Woody circa Manhattan, with a soupcon of the wistfulness of Mia Farrow circa The Purple Rose of Cairo.

There is a joy and a passion in devotional works that are beyond compare. “Love” seems like such a shallow emotion in comparison. And what can one revere more than a city? Books and works of art simply cannot hope to compete with a city; even a mere street or alleyway is bursting with so much life, Woody says. And right there is the mantra to every Woody Allen movie ever made: he never has the arrogance to compete with or even simplify a city to a formula. He just makes devotional works to sing a city’s praise and meld with its cultural ethos. That’s what any artist worth his or her salt did: be it Vermeer’s view of Delft, Edith Piaf singing about the skies of Paris or Billy Joel’s state of mind. Cities are more than just a personality; they are deities. Which is why we worship them, curse them when it rains, curse them when it doesn’t rain, defend them strenuously when foreigners dare to curse them and we are haplessly bound to them.

Thanks to Woody, I know I’m going to be terribly disappointed when I visit New York and hear no jazz background number to accompany my stroll down a street in Manhattan.

Bottom line? You wont be able to hate this movie. I encourage you to try, but you will fail. You may not love it as much as I did, but that’s only because I suspect Woody peeked into my secret journal (which totally does not exist) where I’ve specifically stated that the world needs more movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and that if I had a time machine, I’d head straight to the 20s. You may dismiss this film as a confection: delightful, but not satiating. I disagree. The sparkling wit and humour that one has come to expect from a Woody Allen film never took away from the depth of the dialogue. It gave every single cameo relevance, rather than rendering them into mere crowd-pleasers. Despite having a rather bold story that takes suspension of disbelief to a completely different level, he masterfully weaved the many themes together to create a very realistic fantasy. Add to that the fact that the cast was perfectly chosen and that even the most dislikable characters brought substance to the film (as opposed to existing solely as foils to the protagonist), that what you have here is a film that is wise and will remain ever-watchable.

After a long line of forgettable films, the inimitable Woody Allen is back.