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Posts Tagged ‘J.K. Rowling’

Ah, the nights are drawing in, there is a crispness to the air, and somewhere in the distance I can hear the sound of a safe pair of hands printing money. It must be time for another pre-Christmas brand extension for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, aka The Conjuring Cash-Cow of J.K. Rowling. This time around it’s Fabulous Pests: The Grimy Gimblebonk, directed, almost inevitably, by David Yates [note to self: don’t forget to check movie name is right before posting review]. Oddly enough, when I asked for a ticket for Fabulous Pests 2 at the sweetshop which masquerades as the larger local branch of the Odeon, the minion looked at me blankly and gave me a ticket for Bohemian Rhapsody, and I had a tricky time with some irritated Queen fans for a bit. Cinema staff these days, eh? Tch.

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Here is what I was able to make out with regard to the plot, which is (of course) the work of J.K. Rowling, a woman whose vocabulary seems to include many Latin words but apparently not ‘restraint’ or ‘editor’: having been forced to abandon his Colin Farrell disguise at the end of the previous film, evil wizard Gimblebonk (Johnny Depp, who is both unexpectedly restrained and not especially grimy) busts out of magical prison and sets about his dastardly plan. Exactly what this is would constitute a spoiler if I had any idea what it was, but it appears to involve doing something absolutely ghastly in one of the three (yup, three) further films we can expect in this part of the franchise.

It all revolves around a lad named Credence (Ezra Miller), who has an obscure but significant pedigree. He was actually believed dead at the end of the previous outing, but there has been a Credence revival in the mean time [note to self – think of a way to cram the words ‘clear water’ into that last sentence or the joke falls a bit flat]. Now he is searching for his origins and nearly everyone else is searching for him.

As well as the minions of the malevolent Gimblebonk, the lad is being looked for by Newt Scamperer (Eddie Redmayne), who as before is basically a cross between Tristan Farnon, Ged the Archmage, and Rain Man [some of the cultural references perhaps a bit obscure there? Hmmm]. He is doing this not because he is working as the agent of celebrated wizard and teacher Waldo Dimbledink (Jude Law), but because a girl he has a bit of a pash for (Katherine Waterston) is also on the case.

So off they all go to Paris, eventually, and soon the air is zinging with magic spells and extravagant sorcery in the way that only a $200 million budget can enable. Numerous subplots intertwine, supposedly adorable CGI beasties crawl, flutter, and bound about the place, and various secrets are revealed – although what was really going on in the shared past of Gimblebonk and Dimbledink is not much more than alluded to, presumably so real-world bigots won’t complain about the depiction of made-up ones.

It is quite easy to be glib and cynical about this particular franchise, as you can perhaps tell. No doubt the producers would respond to this sort of killjoyism by pointing to the $814 million made by the previous film, which certainly suggests that there is still a demand for stories set in this particular fictional universe, but I wonder – certainly, I know some people have given Grimy Gimblebonk as rapturous a reception as anyone  could hope for (‘absolutely brilliant’ was the considered opinion of one maths professor of my acquaintance), but the two Potterheads I share an office with were much less impressed.

This is probably rather ironic, as you really do need to be one of the faithful to follow all the ins and outs of this film. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, as well as seeing the movies, and I saw the previous Pests film too (although that was a couple of years ago). But while I was still able to follow the general movement of this particular story without too much difficulty, I think it does demand too much from casual viewers – it makes a certain sort of sense that one character is apparently known as an Obscurial or an Obscurus, because exactly what all of it means is far from completely clear. Someone may or may not be related to someone else, this character may have a secret past with that one, and in the end it turns out that someone is the long-lost relative of somebody else. The irony comes from the fact that some of these revelations, specifically the ones tying the film in to the (chronologically later) Harry Potter stories, have been met with bared fangs by the staunchest Potterheads, as J.K. appears to be rewriting the continuity of her own universe, something they feel she is not allowed to do (and let’s not even get into the fuss arising from her attempt to fill-in the back-story of Lord Voldemort’s pet snake).

The problem is that, if you’re not a Rowling superfan, not much of the story here really feels like it matters – there’s a lot of imagination on display here, both in the tale and its telling, and the film is always visually polished and frequently quite well-played (Jude Law is particularly good). But it does often feel like you’re peering into a private world, without ever being told why you should actually care about it.

There’s also the problem that, for a film concerning itself with (all right, all right) the crimes of Johnny Depp’s character, he doesn’t really do very much in this film beyond lurk about menacingly and occasionally make a speech: this film is clearly largely an exercise in setting up future episodes. It is actually slightly annoying, then, to have to report that those films show potential to be distinctly interesting. J.K. Rowling’s liberal credentials are well known (though she’s clearly not progressive enough for some of her more rabid fans), and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between her villain here – he’s not so much a magical realist as a magical populist, intent on whipping up his followers with an ideology based on fear and division – and certain present-day real-world figures. But more interesting still is a moment in which some of the darkness and horror of the real world breaks through into what often still feels like a quaint and whimsical setting, the children’s-book origins of which remain obvious – the characters get a vision of what awaits the world in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the implication is that future films will deal with this in more detail.

Nevertheless, part of me remains fairly certain that the perceived need to make these films as bland as possible for box-office purposes (rumour has it that J.K. is down to her last £600 million) will triumph, and the future instalments will end up as aesthetically pleasing but dramatically inert as this one. This is not a bad film, in many ways: it has a lot of imagination and is never actually dull to watch. However, it seems calculated to either bemuse or annoy the vast majority of audiences, in part because it spends too much time complicating its story, but not nearly enough explaining why anyone should care about it.

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I hate to break it to you, but we are currently approximately 16% of the way through the 21st century. All resources must be exploited. All revenue streams must be maximised. The chances of anything still popular and therefore financially viable being allowed to remain a fond memory are, to be perfectly honest, zero. So it should come as no surprise that it has been decreed that the vastly lucrative entity that was the Harry Potter film series has lain fallow long enough, and that a series of prequel movies has duly started to appear. (It took about fifteen years for the original Star Wars trilogy to get prequelated; ten years for The Lord of the Rings; with Harry Potter the delay is down to five. At this rate the prequels will soon start coming out in double bills with the films they are based on.) First out of the blocks to hoover your money is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates.

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(What, too much? You may have a point, especially considering I was rather positive about Yates’ Tarzan movie, which only came out a few months ago: he must have knocked this one out in a couple of weekends. Well, anyway: you must forgive me, it’s my age. Come on, it’s not as if JK Rowling actually needs the money or anything.)

All righty then: the story opens with the arrival in New York, New York of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He is a traveller who appears to be British, has floppy hair, is terribly eccentric yet clearly meant to be hugely endearing, wears a bow tie, and has a battered old box which is bigger on the inside than the outside (hey, I’m just saying). Newt is, of course, a wizard, for we are in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TM), although we are also in 1926 on this occasion.

Inside Newt’s magic box are his collection of magic animals, a.k.a. weird little chunks of CGI, which he frequently fishes out and bonds with; so often, in fact, that you begin to fear for Redmayne’s sanity after all that acting to empty air and golf-balls on sticks. His visit to the States runs into trouble when he accidentally mixes up his case with that of aspiring baker and non-magician Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several of the little buggers inevitably escape. This draws the attention of magical cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her kooky sister (Alison Sudol).

The magical authorities of the States are not best pleased as it seems that some kind of supernatural menace is already on the loose in the Empire City, preying on normal people and wizards alike, with top wizard-cop Colin Farrell on the case. Can Newt and his friends recapture all his lumps of CGI and solve the mystery of what’s really going on?

The ardour of the Harry Potter fanbase is still such that a film like Fantastic Beasts is effectively critic-proof; and sure enough this one has made over $270 million in about a week of release. Anyway, it would be remiss of me to say that it is an actual waste of time, money, and talent, for clearly a lot of thought, imagination and skill has gone into creating the world and story of the film.

Even so, one can’t help but notice that this first made-directly-for-the-screen tale has ditched the British setting for something more familiar to that big audience in the USA (i.e, a setting in the USA). It hasn’t become totally Americanised, but something very odd still seems to have happened: this is a film with a main character who resembles an American person’s idea of what the British are like, set in a place which is a British person’s idea of what America is like. Then again, it’s JK Rowling, so you don’t turn up expecting reality, and the two things do kind of balance each other out.

That said, I’m rather less impressed with Rowling the screenwriter than I was with Rowling the novelist: the story is reasonably well-structured, and properly cinematic in scope, but the plotting is considerably less impressive, the tendency towards sentimentality seems rather stronger, and as usual the thing is in dire need of a good no-nonsense editor.

Possibly the most serious problem, which may become more obvious as this series goes on – apparently four (four?!?) more prequels are in the works – is that very sense of self-indulgence, of the film being its own raison d’etre. I still think much of the success of the Harry Potter books was down to their comforting familiarity to parents rather than children: there’s a touch of Agatha Christie to that fiendishly clever plotting, and also of Enid Blyton in the Three Have A Wizard Time vibe which is so often in evidence. Underneath all the intricate world-building they are on some level pastiches of different kinds of story.

Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is just a fantasy with a couple of right-on subtexts of brick-through-your-window subtlety, coupled to a lot more world-building. Some of this is interestingly unexpected: the magical community in the USA, despite having a female president (told you it was a fantasy), is by no means depicted entirely flatteringly – they are autocratic and alarmingly fond of the death penalty. But much of the rest of it may not be that interesting to you if you’re not already a pretty heavy-duty Harry Potter fan, and many of the references to characters and so on from the previous films and books may likewise go over your head if you’re not one of the faithful. Due to my abnormally retentive mind, I think I got most of the references, but even so I thought much of the climax was rather underwhelming – there didn’t seem to me to be a lot at stake, at least nothing I’d been made to care about. Some concluding revelations in particular are most likely to simply baffle people who maybe saw all the earlier films once each when they came out, and can’t remember all the labyrinthine backstory of every major character.

Still, it looks suitably lavish and there are some nice performances: Redmayne is a bit too mannered for my tastes, but Fogler gives a charming performance, Farrell gives proceedings some heft, and they appear to have finally run out of new ways to smother Ron Perlman in latex rubber: he appears here via mo-capping, as a goblin who seems to be in desperate need of a chiropractor. None of it is actively bad, although Sudol’s performance possibly comes close in terms of sheer capacity to annoy, and I have no doubt the expectant masses will lap it up like butterbeer.

Fantastic Beasts is, though, primarily a film which has been made to service an existing fanbase, and just how much you enjoy it will probably depend on how much of a true believer you are. I was never really one of the faithful, certainly as far the movies go, and so I found this film to be a reasonable diversion, perhaps rather overlong and a bit schmaltzy, but generally inoffensive overall. It will be interesting to see how well this film does over the whole length of its release, and whether subsequent instalments will direct themselves quite so exclusively at the core audience. And if it sounds to you that I’m treating this film more as an exercise in branding and marketing than an actual piece of storytelling – well, I commend you on your perspicacity. But it is 2016, after all.

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I have gradually come to the conclusion that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are essentially unfilmable. I know this is a bold statement, and one with which some circumstantial evidence (not to mention $6 billion worth of box office receipts) may seem to conflict. Nevertheless, I honestly feel that as entities in their own right, the films just don’t stand up, and they exist only as companion pieces to the novels. The only film I’ve seen which approaches the quality of the source book is Prisoner of Azkaban, while most of the recent installments have fallen horribly short.

I think this is because Rowling’s world is so rich and textured, and her plots and characters so detailed and intricate, that they simply don’t lend themselves to any other medium. Lord knows I’m not the biggest fan of the books, but I’m bright enough to recognise that their success isn’t wholly a fluke, and I did enjoy them all (even if Order of the Phoenix dragged on to a ridiculous degree) – so I have been able to keep track of the films, pretty much. My parents, on the other hand, haven’t read the series and have emerged from each successive adaptation in a deeper state of bemusement.

I always wondered if this was just them, but as luck would have it there I was at the Putney Odeon tonight as the final credits rolled on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (the safe pair of hands responsible belong, as before, to David Yates) when I found myself sitting next to a woman who hadn’t read any of the books either. I should point out that it was she who kicked off our discussion of what we thought of it, as I am not in the habit of initiating conversations with strange women at the cinema (or indeed anywhere else).

Well, I made various non-committal noises and averred that I didn’t imagine anyone who hadn’t read the books would ‘get’ the films. ‘I haven’t read any of the books,’ she said. ‘But if you just go in assuming there’s going to be a big spectacular battle and that Harry’s going to win in the end, it’s enjoyable enough.’

I can’t argue with that, and indeed, on those terms this film passes muster. But if you’ve never read the book and haven’t seen the previous episode recently, you can forget about keeping track of what’s going on. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums are in search of Plot Coupons which will help them get shot of the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, barring his nose). Having wandered all over the country last time out, this time (after a brief spot of bank robbery) they return to the wizard school at Hogwarts where they believe one of said coupons may be located. Voldemort and his followers are soon on the scene and a battle of truly epic proportions is clearly in the offing…

Hallows Two‘s origins as the second half of a very long book are really very obvious. Just as Hallows One didn’t have a proper ending, this one doesn’t have a proper beginning, and most of the rest is comprised of material that would really be the climax of a less grandiose project (it’s sort of shapeless and perhaps a little repetitive). If you view the films as a single entity, then I suppose this makes sense, and as I said before it doesn’t even attempt to stand up as a film in its own right – there’s no recap, and it’s assumed that the audience is entirely familiar with events from the first couple of films even though they’re nearly a decade old now.

Even on these terms, though, is it any good? I don’t know. The visuals are as spectacular as one could hope for – though given the budget these guys have to work with, that’s hardly a surprise – and the Potter rep company are all present and doing sterling work, even if most of them have hugely diminished roles this time around (special commendation to Matthew Lewis for actually making an impression in such high-powered company). And, every now and then, and often when you least expect it, there are fleeting moments of genuine magic to be found.

As you might expect, not all of the book’s plot makes it to the screen. Grimly predictable though it was following the excision of most of Voldemort’s backstory from Half-Blood Prince, most of Dumbledore’s history has got the chop from this one, and one suspects the revelations about Snape only stayed in because the plot demanded it. The decision to include the epilogue sequence from the book is, for once, questionable – it’s unintentionally funny and the young leads just look like they’re dressing up as adults. ‘That was naff’ piped up one young voice as the final credits rolled, although – who knows? – he may have been passing comment on the whole enterprise.

(That this film, and the series as a whole, concludes with a section celebrating the fact that nothing has really changed, and life goes on exactly as it did in the good old days, tells you everything you need to know about the underlying sensibility of the Harry Potter series, I think.)

On the whole it really is just business as usual, albeit on a grander scale. The thing is, though, that there were sections of this film that – unsurprisingly – put me in mind of the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Now, when both of those final films concluded I found myself genuinely struggling to maintain a properly stalwart manly demeanour – but in this case, I found myself completely unmoved. I never invested in the cinematic version of these characters, never really cared about the story.

Wiser heads than mine have applauded this series for having things like proper characterisation and plotting and themes and atmosphere, and given the woeful standard of many FX-driven blockbusters this is not something to overlook. And, like all the other Harry Potter adaptations this one is polished and efficient. But that’s really all it is.

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