Monday, July 20, 2009


“Shut up.”

I’ve posted on the Harry Potter Phenomenon (Here: )and I’ll have to say that the latest film doesn’t do much to change my opinion of the films. The latest film continues the Weirdly Uneven quality that has characterized the series as a whole. The last film ORDER OF THE PHOENIX was made with some energy, as opposed to the film before it, GOBLET OF FIRE, which is a major snooze, as opposed to the film before it, PRISONER OF AZKABAN, which is by the far the finest film of the series so far, as opposed to the film before it, CHAMBER OF SECRETS, which is by far the weakest film of the series so far, as opposed to the film before it, SORCERER’S STONE, which was a good solid kickoff to the series.

Anyway. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is kind of a letdown, and kind of not a letdown. The biggest problem is that there’s just not a lot of urgency to the movie, it just dawdles along at its own very very slow pace, which is a big surprise considering that the last film ended with the official recognition that the Dark Lord Voldemort has in fact come back from oblivion and is up to No Good. I’d have expected some kind of uproar about this in the magical world of the film, but no, there isn’t any onscreen. It is just business as usual for the gang at Hogwarts, the kids are having their growing pains and we get to watch some mostly amusing games of the he-loves-her-he-loves-her-not variety, along with the inevitable rumblings from the bad guys and a big climactic showdown. Somehow, though, the movie doesn’t feel like a total disappointment, as there’s enough good stuff to keep interest up. My favorite scene in the film takes place on an island in the middle of an underground lake, and is almost impossible to watch without extreme discomfort, not least because it all takes place in near total silence. So gripping was this sequence that it managed to hold a NYC multiplex audience spellbound: there was none of the usual audience noise that makes summer blockbusters such agony to sit through. The film is deliberately deliberate, in other words, despite the couple of big set pieces which almost serve to remind you that this is after all an adventure story.

This slow pacing is a marked change from the book, which I’ve just started and which is written in J.K. Rowling’s characteristically energetic prose. The book begins with a marvelously conceived chapter that didn’t make it into the film, which very cleverly manages to deliver a good deal of What Has Gone Before In Vols I-V while setting up a good deal of What Is To Come In Vol VI. Rowling is able to keep the proceedings consistently lively in a way that director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves never quite manage.

The film isn’t a total bore, of course. The story is engaging, to be sure, and the acting is of a very high standard. The great Jim Broadbent makes a long overdue appearance in the Potter Universe, and the three kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) all get their own little moments to shine in ways that they’ve only hinted at in the past. Radcliffe in particular gets a glorious little scene where Harry’s usual solemnity gives way to a chemically-induced cheer that is a joy to behold. Side note: they’re going to have to do something to explain Watson’s Hermione being so much in love with Grint’s Ron Weasley: her devotion to the character they’ve made into such a boob is increasingly unconvincing.

It looks like I really disliked the film, when I didn’t. Bottom Line: a deliberately told adventure story isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a bit more consistent energy in the storytelling and filmmaking is definitely in order for the next two installments. I’ll go see them of course. I do wish they’d get Alfonso Cuaron back to tighten things up.

Friday, July 17, 2009


For the first time, I made a major cross-country pilgrimage to see a film festival. This is what comes of having a job with a firm with a liberal vacation policy. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been on my radar for a long time for a couple of reasons: I love silent films and I love San Francisco and I love the Castro Theatre where the festival takes place. I didn't see all of the programs, there just being limits to how much I can take in. Here are some notes on what I did see:

The opening night attraction was THE GAUCHO, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle of great charm and energy. The story isn't much: Fairbanks plays The Gaucho, a notorious bandit leader who finds himself in a power struggle with a fascist-type dictator over control of a small town in Mexico which just happens to have a famous Lourdes-type shrine, complete with a St. Bernadette stand-in. There's a good deal of fun to be had before the inevitable Hollywood Silent Piety takes over, as Fairbanks cheerfully does a host of impossible things effortlessly. Not just the big wall-scaling stunts, either. The Gaucho has a running habit of putting a cigarette into his mouth, striking a match with his thumbnail, propping the match in his thumbnail, lighting the cigarette with the match in his thumbnail and flicking the match away (leaving an impressive trail of smoke), all with one hand in one continuous fluid movement that just defies description and must have taken weeks to master. Fairbanks seems to be having a grand old time doing all this, and his delight is infectious. The movie is almost pure pleasure. I liked it a hell of a lot, and the crystal clear print and live accompaniment by the Mount Alto Orchestra only added to the experience.

A program of odds and ends from assorted archives that wouldn't really fit into any particular program, some shorts, trailers and brief clips (some lasting only a few seconds) from films that don't exist anymore, introduced by the archivists who oversaw their restoration. A couple of amusing shorts, one with the memorable intertitle "Spurned By The Heiress, The Music Teacher Listens To The Arguments Of The Anarchist." A tantalizing couple of seconds from an otherwise lost film with proto-hunk Ramon Novarro were fun to look at, too.

A costume adventure in the Fairbanks style, starring the great John Gilbert, directed by the great King Vidor from a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Gilbert plays Bardelys, a 17th Century Casanova type in the court of Louis XIII who finds himself obliged to woo and marry a country virgin as part of a wager. Bardelys travels to the girl's family estate and for some reason takes the identity of a man he finds dying in a barn, and finds himself assumed by everyone to be the leader of an anti-royalist plot to overthrow the king, which plot involves the family of the girl he's supposed to be wooing. Don't be looking for plausibility here. Vastly entertaining, with some genuinely funny intertitles, a rarity in silent films. The movie dares you to take it seriously, and it was interesting to see it within 12 hours of THE GAUCHO. Fairbanks and Gilbert are both fascinating performers. Gilbert is by far the finer actor, actually creating characters onscreen, as opposed to Fairbanks' near-mugging. But the big climactic action sequence is clearly meant to be in the Fairbanks mode, and, despite some wonderful gimmicks it doesn't quite come off as handsomely as it might, largely because Gilbert simply lacks Fairbanks' astonishing ability to the impossible with ease. An entertaining bit of fluff, with a lovely performance by Eleanor Boardman as the object of Gilbert's affections. She plays a virtuous virgin without making her unapproachably pure, her occasional little grins add an amusing dimension to what could have been a real piece of cardboard.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by the great Ben Hecht, an early gangster film that seems to have set the template for a lot of what came after. Hecht even uses great chunks of the plot of this film (for which he won the first Academy Award for best original story) in his screenplay for Hawks' SCARFACE. The plot centers on a rivalry between two gang leaders (exactly what their gangs do is never really spelled out), one of whom takes a down and outer under his wing and sets him up in some style. The refurbished down and outer, of course, falls for the gangster's moll, and it kind of goes along from there. This must have been pretty alarming stuff in 1927, but it felt rather tame now, and the similarities to SCARFACE are just too apparent for the movie to seem like much more than a footnote to the later film.

An early science fiction film from Russia. This has been on my radar for years, every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of a photo of some of the remarkable Futurist cubist type sets and costumes for the scenes on Mars, and had been expecting a kind of cross between METROPOLIS and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, but got instead a rather tired Soviet propaganda piece, with some admittedly cool bits that weren't cool enough to alleviate the boredom. I fell asleep, and don't feel that I missed much.

A fascinating program of shorts featuring Oswald, Disney's cartoon star before Mickey. Well, the shorts were fascinating. The biggest drawback to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival were the people chosen to introduce the screenings, who occasionally went on too long without saying very much of substance or even interest. The Oswald program had the worst offender in Leonard Maltin, who took a lot of time to tell the audience what pretty much every one of us present almost assuredly already knew about the early history of Walt Disney, without ever once managing to be at all interesting in any way.

I did like the shorts, though. Fast and funny and above all lively. Cartoons at this period were usually pretty simple affairs, you were expected to just sit and appreciate the moving pictures of dogs and cats and mice. These shorts are not much different, but there are little moments that surprise, like an extended bit with a dog who is startled when his hot dog sceams in pain at each impending bite. The dog finally tearfully sets the bun down, and the hot dog runs happily away.

A wonderful festival, all around. I didn't make all of the screenings, but there were plenty who did. The same people seemed to be in the same seats at each screening I attended, clearly having stayed put between shows. I don't know if I have it in me to go quite that far, but the opportunity to see such great prints of these films, in such a great setting, with such an appreciative audience, is not one that I'm likely to pass up often. I think I'll be making this an annual trek.

Friday, July 03, 2009


No, not the Republican Party, although Christian Bale does a witty impression of George W. Bush as Melvin Purvis, the G-man assigned to solve the Dillinger Problem.  It is kind of a clever idea, as Mann's film shows Purvis as borderline incompetent, but, like the rest of Mann's film, it is a clever idea that ultimately doesn't really add up to much.

Johnny Depp's work as John Dillinger is carefully observed if a bit remote, somehow.  I just never really felt that I got enough of a sense of what makes him tick, or rather, I never got the feeling that what made him tick was interesting enough to carry a full length film.  I could never quite shake my knowledge that Dillinger is, ultimately, just a criminal who finally winds up getting what is coming to him.

I'm finding it hard to find things to say about the film.  I've seldom been so underwhelmed by a big event film.  PUBLIC ENEMIES isn't bad, by any means.  There are some memorable moments, like Depp's first glimpse of his future girlfriend, played by the glorious Marion Cotillard, from across a crowded restaurant.  Their courtship is exciting and moving: they're the most interesting screen couple in a while.  Billy Crudup has some good fun as a fussy J. Edgar Hoover, and Bale's Purvis, as noted, is an amusing riff on George W. Bush.  

I think ultimately the film just wanders around too much.  I appreciated the economy with which it was established that Dillinger is among the last of a dying breed: solo bank robbers are on the way out, replaced by the big business of the Syndicate who make as much money all day every day as Dillinger makes in one single robbery, without the attendant gunplay and hostage taking.  If the rest of Dillinger's career and his pursuit by the (strangely ineffective) law enforcement forces had been handled as well the film would almost certainly have been a good 45 minutes shorter.  

I lost interest, and started to think about other movies.  Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE manages to establish the economic ugliness of the Great Depression, and Hill's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID generates genuine human interest in its characters in ways that PUBLIC ENEMIES simply never does.  PUBLIC ENEMIES borrows liberally from both film (Dillinger tells a bank customer to keep his money, as Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow does, and Cotillard has a line about not wanting to watch Depp die that echoes a moment between Katharine Ross' Etta Place and the Sundance Kid).  I'd say that if PUBLIC ENEMIES had focused exclusively on one or the other side of the law, it might have amounted to something.  As it is, it just kind of peters out.