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The Incidental Pleasures of Public Enemies, Fedoras Included

Bigger Longer Uncut: The Annotated Movie Column

  • 7/16/09 at 10:19 AM
Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Although some readers e-mail to ask why I can’t get to the point more quickly and also give star ratings (bleh gak ptui), others actually complain my reviews are too short — at least compared to my long and winding ones at the webzine Slate, where no trees died for my sins. The problem is, my columns are designed for print, and in these leaner times I have a choice of covering fewer films or paring away the non-essentials — my darlings. On occasion I’ve used this website to run untrimmed “director’s cuts.” But this week, still smarting from last week’s surgery, I’m taking my cue from the great David Foster Wallace.1 Behold the column annotated [NB: The easiest way to return to the text after reading the footnote is to hit the back button on your browser. Or so I'm told]:

Now that we know how the saga ends (with a ho and a hum),2 Harry Potter feels so… 2008. Kids who started reading J.K. Rowling prepubertally3 (“He and Cho Chang snog? No way!”) have since moved on to Mormon sexual-repression parables involving vampires, while Little Harry got naked on Broadway and blinded six horses with a metal spike.4 Undaunted, Warners announced it would prolong its tony franchise by splitting the under-plotted final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two movies. (If they split the second part of that and keep splitting, the series could go on to infinity.5) As tag teams of agents and executives labor to convince Dame J.K. that the world desperately needs prequels (Young Dumbledore and the Temple of Doom!), here comes movie number six, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Do we give a damn?

I didn’t, until the film started — and it was splendid! No, it’s not a larky kidpic. We’re firmly in the realm of English horror, as one set of sallow Brits battles another even sallower.6 Our villains are racist murderers; our heroes embody tolerance, discipline, and a British public school education heavy on Latin — which, when chanted properly behind a wand, can mean the difference between goosing and defenestrating someone. As the aged Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) hears the chimes at midnight,7 Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Ron’s newly-sprouted kid sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), struggle to keep their desires (and vindictive hexes) in check while their objects of affection snog other people.8 If Voldemort (present in this movie only in spirit) were a true evil genius, he’d have abandoned the horcrux nonsense and used their own hormones against them.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves9 — who adapted earlier Potter tomes with excessive reverence — sat out part five and is in fighting form, cutting a droll path through Rowling’s verbiage. Apart from the fact that no one who hasn’t seen parts one through five will have a clue what’s going on, this barely feels like a sequel. Director David Yates creates Orson-Welles-ish multiple levels of action,10 and when the camera sails around Hogwarts’ turrets, it’s as if the CGI is an extension of the wizards’ magic.

Illustrious British actors pop in and out, intoning their few lines and collecting the paychecks that underwrite their stage work (and country houses). As Professor Snape, either a double or a triple agent, Alan Rickman hits new levels of hauteur, breaking up sentences with long, disdainful beats: I counted five seconds between two words,11 and I’m guessing Dame Maggie Smith bit her tongue to keep from howling. Jim Broadbent shows up as the new professor, Slughorn, and he makes the man at once dotty and haunted, the dottiness keeping his guilt at bay.

Our three protagonists are taller, more polished, more charismatic — after all, they’re movie stars now. But Emma Watson’s Hermione has turned out disappointingly. It’s not Watson’s fault she grew up so pretty, so poised, with such luscious tresses. But someone ought to have reminded the filmmakers that in this boy-centric universe, Hermione was the nerdy-wonkie-cutie with whom all girls, hot and not, could identify. Now she’s just another cover girl.12 I found myself wishing for more of the washed-out blond Evanna Lynch and her glassy sing-song as the space case Luna Lovegood, the last female reminder that Harry Potter began as a universe of misfits.

Once upon a time, screenwriter Scott Neustadter fell for a remarkably attractive but commitment-averse woman and instantly decided she was the One — and he kept hope alive until she dumped him. He hasn’t gotten over it: The pain in 500 Days of Summer (written with Michael H. Weber) feels very raw. The movie, directed by Marc Webb, is told entirely from the point of view of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aspiring architect earning a living concocting greeting-card platitudes; while the love of his life, Summer (Zoe Deschanel, with her sexy-slurry delivery and electric blue eyes), remains unreadable, unknowable, endlessly manipulative. Line by line the script is clever, but it’s the syntax that kills.13 There’s a counter on the screen, and the movie leaps from day 259 to 1 to 154 and back and forth until we reach 500. Starting with the break-up means we see what Tom, in the moment, can’t: She’s trouble and he’s an emotional ding-a-ling.

That slick, Son-of-Charlie-Kaufman stuff is enough to put 500 Days of Summer over, and Levitt — who moves groggily, as if he sleeps all day but never deeply14 — is an expert enough comedian to mope without killing the pace. There’s a neat dramatic coup when Tom and Summer play house in an IKEA, and an ingenious split-screen sequence in which “Expectation” on the left gradually diverges from “Reality” on the right. But the film is finally a brilliant tap dance over a void: There’s no real drama when the inner life of the female lead is so shrouded, even if that’s the point.15 Compare 500 Days… to the messed-up teen comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper, adapted by Larry Doyle16 from his rollicking novel. It’s ploddingly directed,17 but along the way the object of the nerd hero’s fantasies, Beth Cooper (a lovely performance by Hayden Panettierre), acquires more and more complexity. And three dimensions, however dim, are more enlivening than the sparkling two of 500 Days of Summer.

If you manage not to bolt in the first five minutes of Death in Love — in which Boaz Yakin cuts back and forth between a Jewish girl having sex with a Nazi and graphic shots of Nazis performing experimental surgery on Jews — you’ll be rewarded with a pretentious, stilted, but weirdly compelling blend of sins-of-the-parent family saga and horror movie.18 The torrid affair enabled Mom (Jaqueline Bisset) to survive the holocaust, but she went on to destroy her sons, a con artist (Josh Lucas) with a penchant for S&M who victimizes women and a basket-case (Lukas Haas19) who’s terrified of them. Really, there’s something here to offend everyone: It’s the kind of film that makes you want to shout invectives at the screen. But it also reminds you how little there is in the way of movies about how family traumas get worked out (or just acted out) in the bedroom.20 We need more insane artists to light the dark paths ahead.


1 This is not in any way to compare myself to David Foster Wallace, whose prose contains trapdoors under trapdoors and byways we’ll be exploring for years.

2 Rowling’s epic final battle scene is crushingly bad, especially the part where Mrs. Weasley does the “Leave him alone, you bitch!” thing to Bellatrix Lestrange. That was cheap in Aliens but at least had some kick when yelled at a giant disemboweling mama monster.

3 Copy editors changed this from “pre-puberty” to “prepubertally,” a word I didn’t know existed. (My spell-check doesn’t know it, either.) That’s why copy editors make the big bucks. [Update: To clear up any possible confusion, this is a big wet kiss to my wonderful copy editors, not a diss.]

4 Phrasing stolen from Christopher Durang’s sublimely funny Beyond Therapy, which contains one of the most devastating critiques of a bogus play I’ve ever seen: “You’re afraid of feeling, of emotion. That’s wrong, Prudence, because then you have no passion. Did you see Equus? The Doctor felt it was better to blind eight horses in a stable with a metal spike than to have no passion. In my life I’m not going to be afraid to blind the horses, Prudence.” (Incidentally, Durang has it at eight but New York’s researchers report six. I don’t remember. I saw John Dexter’s production on Broadway in ’76 with Anthony Hopkins, Peter Firth, and Roberta Maxwell — the first naked woman I ever saw — and swallowed it whole and have no desire ever to see or read the thing again.) (NB: Do not base your judgment of Durang’s play on Robert Altman’s horrible movie. As the world’s biggest fan of both Altman and Durang, I am sad to say their talents didn’t mesh.)

5 The last book’s epilogue (a mistake), set years in the future, would certainly lend itself to another film, perhaps beginning with a pair of zany weddings (Bewitched-like magic relatives getting drunk and zapping one another) and mishap-ridden childbirths. Alternately, one could go the Beckett route and depict an enfeebled wisp of Voldemort endlessly reliving his failed coup. (“Spelllllll … Spellllllll.”)

6 Hammer films were all about pale English people battling pale demons. But in some ways, they’re not like the Potter saga at all. Despite copious cleavage and bright-red blood that drew the ire of conservatives, Hammer’s Dracula and devil pictures were reactionary and misogynistic: The English heroes used the power of science (crisp, sexless, rational) and religion (Christianity) to ward off threats from abroad to their homogenous patriarchal society and too-easily seduced women. J.K. Rowling turns that whole construct around. It’s white supremacists with their murderous disdain for mudbloods and muggles who are the embodiments of evil. (That said, Dumbledore is as powerful a patriarch as any in Christendom — and his bond with Harry is the emotional core of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.)

7 Obligatory Shakespeare phrase. They just pop out!

8 I am very glad I did not have access to magic in the throes of early break-ups. There would have been many dead bodies.

9 Kloves wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys. He’s talented. It’s too bad he hasn’t directed since the draggy but interesting thriller Flesh and Bone he did with fun couple Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, as well as James Caan and Gwyneth Paltrow. You can tell he makes actors feel safe enough to go to dark places.

10 I didn’t see the film in 3-D, where the depth-of-field will be even more pronounced, but I laughed a lot at his Magnificent Ambersons–like compositions. What would Welles have done with the sleight of hand that is CGI? As a vital link between such theater visionaries as Gordon Craig (and Houdini!) and the giants of early film, he might have relished the possibilities for creating new illusions.

11 “I … just … [one-one-thousand two-one-thousand three-one-thousand four-one-thousand-five-one-thousand] know.”

12 This is really not an attack on Emma Watson’s looks, and no, I don’t think she should have been recast. It’s more a matter of coiffing and costuming. She looks like what she is — a Teen Vogue cover girl and clotheshorse, not what most readers — including me — want from Hermione Granger. A lot of girls were disappointed that the super-sexy Linda Cardellini played Velma in the Scooby Doo movie. Don’t get me started on astrophysicist Jessica Alba. I think Thora Birch in Ghost World is the ideal combination of nerd and babe, although I’m open to other nominations. (I’m going to show some clips on the subject on CBS Sunday Morning this week.) [Update 7/19: My segment, along with many others, was cut for the best of all reasons: a tribute to CBS--and American--legend Walter Cronkite. It's possible it will run at a future date.]

13 It’s worth pointing out that Annie Hall is a classic because of its tricky syntax, too, some of it worked out in the editing room with the late editor Ralph Rosenblum. Boy, did Whatever Works need Rosenblum.

14 R.E.M. sleep, not to be confused with sleep induced by the last few REM albums.

15 It’s hard to say who this woman is, she’s so inaccessible. In the late party scene, she seems like a real borderline personality. If there’s a moral, it’s that nerds should not date extremely beautiful women because when they get dumped they never get over it. Albert Brooks said you should mate with the least attractive woman you’re still really attracted to so you don’t get consumed by jealousy and suspicion. I didn’t do that, but it’s one design for living.

16 Larry Doyle was an editor here for years, and there are many hair-raising stories about his temperament and perfectionism. I don’t care, I think he’s brilliant and can be as nutty as he wants. But he’s wrong in semi-disowning Joe Dante’s Loony Tunes: Back in Action, which is a treat.

17 The director is Chris Columbus, who should probably stick to producing at this point. His style is too safe, too square, too homogenized for Doyle’s often witty script. The movie needed to move faster and more crazily.

18 Boaz Yakin produced the Hostel films and a few other nasty horror pictures, and on the basis of Death in Love, he doesn’t care much for women, whom he sees as both clueless victims and homicidal demons who destroy men.

19 Lukas Haas, the Amish kid from Witness, is a fine, hypersensitive actor who deserves more work. The same goes for that other famous eighties juvenile, Henry Thomas of E.T.

20 It can’t be said too often that we lag behind the Japanese and, to some extent, the Germans and French in depicting how early family traumas find their way into sexual fantasies and fetishes. That doesn’t mean we need more XXX roughies or a lot of reductive psychologizing. But there’s a middle ground. Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours does a great job of dramatizing the way primal relationships between a girl and her family translate to the bedroom. That’s the kind of backstory the worshiped/despised love object of (500) Days of Summer lacks.