Top Ten of 2011, #10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, David Yates

The entire Harry Potter phenomenon is something that has truly deserved all of its successes.  The existence of the books are nothing short of a miracle, considering how J.K. Rowling wrote the first one while on social security and unemployed, a single mother in the throes of clinical depression contemplating suicide.  Unlike most young adult fiction, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-written and intelligent.  They don’t speak down to their readership, but rather invite it to rise and grow with the series.  They portray an enticing, magical world where every child has a place and an extended family at Hogwarts, where children are respected and valued and encouraged to embrace their destiny.  It’s no surprise than an entire generation of children has been given hope by the series, and learned to appreciate the joys of reading.

The films began with director Christopher Columbus, who did an adequate job on the first two creating a sense of magic and the wonders of discovery.  But the director of fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire has never been much for subtlety, and one of the signatures of his films appears to be the trite, phony, narcissistic grins of overly-precious Hollywood child stars.  Luckily for the series the three leads were cast so well, and all of them grew with the films into talented young actors.  Things really experienced a shift when Alfonso Cuaron took over for Prisoner of Azkaban and began treating it like something more than a shiny, happy child’s confection.  Then David Yates came on board with the fifth film and stuck through to the end becoming a central, governing voice along with screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Not only did Yates provide a great consistency during the run of the final half of the series, but he began with the adaptation that is easily the worst book in the series, the Order of the Phoenix.  The fifth novel is almost unreadable as Rowling seems to have lost the through-line with this installment, and most of the book is spent scrabbling around trying to find its voice, its purpose, and the ending for the series.  My personal theory is that the success of the film series really hit Rowling while she was working on it, and suddenly she was no longer writing only for herself or even for her enormous and still-growing readership, but for the Hollywood machine, and the pressures of not upsetting it created a lot of anxiety and self-questioning.  Luckily for her, she was back on track with the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Phoenix is filled with a lot of meandering and stumbling, and reads like a collection of filler material by a writer trying to find her way through a first draft to the end.  Nevertheless, Yates took the material and did something rare– made an adaptation stronger than the source material.

So the weight on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is enormous.  Not only does it finish up an unprecedented film series, one shot with the same young actors over the course of a decade as they matured, never replacing any of them, and one with a cinematic vision that became more honed and refined as the series continued, but it does justice to a literary phenomenon, and the end of the film series signals the close to a multi-media legacy featuring a who’s who of the British acting community.  The special effects, set design, make-up, and art direction continued to evolve and grow over the course of the series, always representing the best of its time, and by this last film has evolved into something truly special.  And in addition to all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, Deathly Hallows has the unenviable task of wrapping up plot detail after plot detail, of portraying moment after sacred moment in the endgame of a beloved literary benchmark.  Every moment of the film is an opportunity to stumble, but the film never does.  Under Yates’ confident leadership, Deathly Hallows hits every small bit out of the park and brings a satisfying close to an unwieldy eight-film adaptation.

Now, it’s likely that Deathly Hallows can’t really stand on it’s own.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s never read the Harry Potter books or seen the other films sitting in front of this one and having any idea of what’s going on or caring about the characters.  To that point, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 really can’t be appreciated as a stand-alone film.  But the manner it which it closes such a long and successful series is the kind of razor’s edge, miraculous balancing act that deserves acknowledgement and deep respect.  Forget the new “trilogy,” the Harry Potter film series is really the Star Wars of this generation, so powerful that its success has redefined the Hollywood blockbuster franchise, inflicting the irredeemable Twilight films on us with their mimicking marketing strategy right down to splitting the final book into two films, a move that was required to capture the full density of the final Potter book, but one that is nothing more than imitation and a blind money grab on the part of that other franchise’s vapid excrescence.

9/10

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London Boulevard, William Monahan (2011)

London Boulevard comes with a high pedigree; it’s the directorial debut of screenwriter William Monahan, the writer behind such films as Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness.  And it stars Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Ben Chaplin, and Eddie Marsan.  That’s a damn fine British cast, with Irish Farrell in his post-prima donna days.  There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a tightly-written and impressive little indie crime movie.  Except that Monahan has decided to make his directing debut with a self-indulgent, Hollywood-obsessed script that splits its aim in two.

On the one hand, Boulevard tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell as he’s released from prison and has to rely somewhat on old friend Billy Norton, played by Chaplin.  Billy is a small-time hood obviously at the beck and call of a much more powerful master, and he sets Mitchell up in a furnished flat.  Mitchell accompanies Billy on a few criminal errands around town, doing his best to remain uninvolved.  But it’s not long before the local crime boss Gant, played by Winstone, catches wind of Mitchell’s reputation and realizes he’s got more going on upstairs than Billy, and would likely make a very good addition to his organization.  Winstone is normally a great actor, but here he decides to underplay much of his role in a way that simply doesn’t work.  It’s an obvious inclination, wanting to play against type and not simply ratchet himself up to 11 as a screaming, psychotic crime boss, but the way he throws away lines and subverts much of the part isn’t any better.  And considering what a sharp writer Monahan usually is, here he’s just going through the motions and giving us a very generic crime storyline.  It seems as though he’s trying for a certain amount of naturalism, showing us Mitchell and his mates going about the day-to-day in working class neighborhoods.  But it’s still a film that stars Colin Farrell, a movie star, and it’s still an arch crime film.  By sanding it down, Monahan’s made it into something not clever enough with not nearly enough going on to keep it interesting, because he’s certainly never going to get it to the place where it’s a natural day-in-the-life.  There’s a theme involving Farrell choosing to be a good, upstanding citizen because he knows if he were to choose to be a gangster he would disappear down the rabbit hole and become a horrible human being that not even a crime boss could trust, but it’s lost amid the shuffle.  And that’s because…

Boulevard also tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell hired by famous actress Charlotte, Keira Knightley, to protect her from the paparazzi as she hides out on her London estate.  Her best friend Jordon, played by David Thewlis, has been keeping her company and obviously has a bit of a crush on her.  Jordan is a burned out actor-himself, and Monahan uses him as a mouthpiece for a lot of self-indulgent witticisms about acting and Hollywood.  Self-referential films about Hollywood rarely work in my opinion, particularly when trying to play it straight.  The last thing I usually want to see is a film about actors and the narcissistic world of Hollywood.  They’re like books about writers.  If an artist doesn’t have anything to say and has to resort to self-indulgent navel-gazing and purposelessness, it’s beyond rare to find a compelling story springing out of that particular garbage heap.  And this layer of phony, constructed story also manages to destroy any level of credible naturalism Monahan is trying to build with the crime storyline.

For all that, there’s a sweet romance with the damaged, Charlotte character, and Monahan uses the vast differences between Charlotte and and Mitchell for them to take a more honest look at their lives.  This could be Notting Hill done as a crime drama instead of as a comedy.  But Monahan can’t decide which story he really wants to tell, and splits his time between them equally, which results in neither getting adequate screen time or development, and both failing.  The romance between Charlotte and Mitchell never builds into enough or truly captures our interest or empathy, and the crime story with Gant just ends up being a by-the-numbers routine with not enough unique details or characteristics to elevate it above the rote.  Chaplin, for all of his effort, just doesn’t have the requisite charisma to make his role as Mitchell’s mate into the kind of morally-adrift, sleazy best friend that actually resonates; likewise Eddie Marsan is wasted as a corrupt police investigator.  Anna Friel registers as Mitchell’s mess of a sister, turning in perhaps the most memorable performance of the film, but it’s a role that gets short shrift and less screen time than the character deserves.

It’s hard to say whether Monahan falls victim to being too in love with Hollywood, too in love with crime films, or too in love with his own writing.  But he fails to make strong directorial choices, one of which needs to be better determining the central focus of the film.  Boulevard has potential, but it’s a potential that goes lost.  Next time out, Monahan would do better to attempt less and give up his wide, scatterscot aim for a narrower scope allowing himself to do more within its defined sights.

5/10

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