Friday, April 13, 2012

Movie Review: The Battleship Potemkin

The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is invariably included in lists of the best films ever made. Viewing it today, it more than justifies its stature. The story is about the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian warship and the uprising in Odessa that followed. Eisenstein goes beyond setting the standard for “technical brilliance”; he tells the story with a cinematic fluency that would inspire envy in the best contemporary action directors. (Steven Spielberg, to pick one example, is clearly one of Eisenstein's most devoted students.) The individual shots are boldly composed, and Eisenstein has a dazzling sense of choreography: his understanding of how to orchestrate action in the frame so that it heightens or relaxes the pace is just about incomparable. And if this virtuosity wasn't enough, he takes things further with his bravura ordering of shots into a larger, more effective whole. (In film parlance, this rhythmic style of editing—an Eisenstein innovation—is called montage, and the picture’s use of it is still unsurpassed.) All five of the film’s sections are beautifully shaped. The Odessa Steps sequence, in which government troops massacre the rebellious city residents, is the most famous. The most accomplished, though, may be the section in which a martyred sailor is mourned on the Odessa docks. Eisenstein starts slowly, with somber views of the harbor before dawn. The sailor’s body is laid out for viewing, and an occasional passerby stops to pay respect. Lines of those grieving begin to form, and they grow into a procession in which the entire city takes part. The sailor is eulogized: the mutiny is identified with the budding revolution against the tsar, and the crowds are entreated to honor his memory by joining it. The sequence climaxes with the raising of a flag that signifies the solidarity between the townspeople, the ship’s crew, and the greater revolution. The tempo is masterful, and the progression from sorrow to triumph is astonishing. The other sections may not reach quite the same heights, but they’re breathtaking nonetheless. Eisenstein stages, shoots, and edits the film with the craft and dynamism that Beethoven brought to his symphonies. It’s a silent classic that needs no special pleading.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Film Three)

With the series’ third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the story of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his adventures at the Hogwarts School have been put in the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón. He is a filmmaking wizard, and the film is nothing less than magical. It is easily the best of the first three Harry Potter pictures. It looks more elegant from the outset: Cuarón and cinematographer Michael Seresin favor a darker, subtler palette than was used in the first two outings, and the spectacularly composed visuals are alive with mystery and nuance. A romantic sensibility is at work; it can be seen in the gorgeous use of the Scottish landscapes where the film was shot, as well as in the emphasis on nature imagery—Cuarón knows there’s nothing more magical than the sight of an unusual animal or the signs of changes in the seasons. (He has particular fun with the giant, cantankerous Whomping Willow. The film’s most delightful bit is the shot where it shakes the snow off its branches—some of which lands on the camera lens—and the most thrilling is the tussle with it during the pursuit of the story’s villain.) The visual bravura isn’t merely decorative; Cuarón is a storyteller first and foremost, and everything he does is in service to his material. Metamorphoses and the hidden sides of people’s lives are at the heart of the narrative, and his imagery reinforces this every step of the way. It also helps to render Harry’s increasing maturity and emotional complexity. The film is more intense than the first two pictures, but Cuarón does justice to the carnival aspects of the material; the students’ first encounter with a boggart is the slapstick high point of the series thus far, and Emma Thompson’s scenes as Professor Trelawney run a close second. The picture has its exhilarating side, too, such as with Harry’s flight on the back of the magnificent half-horse-half-eagle hippogriff, or the supremely satisfying moment when Hermione (Emma Watson) punches out the class king bee. The screenplay, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s novel, is again by Steve Kloves.

Other Reviews of Harry Potter Material:

Novels by J. K. Rowling



Films

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fiction Review: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book Three)

With Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series, author J. K. Rowling appears to be striving for a more cohesive and intricate narrative than she attempted in the first two outings. Unlike its predecessors, it doesn’t feel broken into distinct sections. The day-in-day-out of Harry Potter’s third year at the Hogwarts School feels all of a piece with the climactic adventure passages. The assorted narrative threads—the search for the fugitive Sirius Black, the misadventures with the Dementor prison guards seeking him, the fate of the maligned hippogriff creature, the secret of the new Dark Arts professor, the travails of Ron’s pet rat Scabbers, and the mystery of how Hermione handles her impossible course load—Rowling does a fine job of weaving them all together. One wishes she was able to create more resonance out of her efforts at narrative doubling; the Sirius Black and hippogriff story arcs have similar thematic elements, and although they come together plot-wise, they don’t play off each other as well as one might hope. But throughout it all, Rowling keeps the characters firmly etched and the reader turning the pages. It’s hard to ask for more from a storyteller.

Other Reviews of Harry Potter Material:

Novels by J. K. Rowling



Films

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Movie Review: Young Adult


With his fourth picture, Young Adult, director Jason Reitman’s batting average goes from perfect to .750. It’s a cruel, repellent film, and it curdles on the screen. The screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who collaborated with Reitman on Juno, appears to be working off her resentment of the popular girls she knew in adolescence. The protagonist, Mavis (Charlize Theron), was a glamour-girl prom queen in high school. Now 37, she’s alone, divorced, and flirting with alcoholism. Her career as a writer is at a dead end: she’s spent the last few years ghosting a series of YA novels, and the books have run their commercial course. One day, after receiving a birth announcement from her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), she decides to return to her hometown, break up his marriage, and get him back. The film demeans Mavis by turning her into the opposite of what she was in her teens. Now she’s the infatuated loser being humiliated by the futility of her romantic pursuits. The glamorous hauteur and fashion sense that made her a queen bee now mark her as a misfit. She was once the center of attention, and now the only friend she can find is a pudgy, geeky classmate (Patton Oswalt) whom she barely noticed while they were growing up. The scenes with Oswalt are by far the easiest to take, partly because he’s an open, amiable presence, and partly because they’re the only time Mavis isn’t making a complete ass of herself. But the film is ultimately just using his character against her, too. The romantic turn their relationship takes is treated as the moment Mavis hits bottom, and the film completely forgets about him afterward. Reitman isn’t in bad form: his staging, tempo, and sense of location are fine, and he gets good work from Theron and the rest of the cast. He’s just not able to get past the ugliness of Cody’s material.


Reviews of other films directed by Jason Reitman: