Monday (2/18/13) 6:19pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.
[missed a week, on account of laziness.]
Movies: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
This is the first movie in the Harry Potter
If I recall correctly, it's also widely reputed to be the worst of them, too. And there are a lot of things to not like in this film. The child actors playing Harry, Ron, and Hermione are really not, at this point, good. They're typically competent -- you can at least tell what they're trying to signify with their acting choices -- but at times you feel like you're watching a middle-school play that, for some reason includes some of England's greatest film actors in walk-on roles.
The CGI also reaches that level of basic, unimpressive competence. Yes, it's often obvious that, "Oh, there's no way this computer animation occupies the same space as the live actors." The surfaces often have that plasticine quality that you only see in CGI creations (okay, and plasticine itself). But what's worse is that it's so hard to make CGI feel "lived in". It's easy, in CGI, to make a perfectly smooth wall. It's harder to make a wall that's been there for three hundred years, that's been dinged-up and worn down in countless ways. That just takes more effort to draw up, and the algorithms behind computer animation handle simpler surfaces better.
What's the upshot of all of this? Well, ask yourself: which universe feels like it has more age built into it: the world we see in the original (please, not Special Edition) Star Wars
, or the world of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
? I would argue that Star Wars
, even though it depicts things that are much newer (maybe a century old, max), and even though its effects were made from Battleship parts, and even though its special-effects budget equalled the catering budget for The Sorcerer's Stone
-- Star Wars
takes the cake here. Even though Hogwart's is supposed to be this centuries-old castle, it feels like a newly-constructed theme-park attraction that includes a few old-timey signifiers.
But all that is part and parcel with the start of this series, which is broad, and simple, and cartoony. But that's not necessarily a problem. Establishing characters as one-note at first can actually work to your advantage -- you can start audiences out with the simple, clear versions of these characters, and then add dimension and nuance later on. And the cartoonish tone might be appropriate for the very young target audience, which grew up with the novels and later grew to appreciate more subtle work from J. K. Rowling.
In fact, the whole movie feels like it's establishing a "point A" for the film series. There are lots of extreme traits in this first film that the later movies can then move away from. This is the brightest and cheeriest Harry Potter film, candy-colored and light, with almost nothing bad happening through its running time -- which means that the later films can gradually go darker. This is a movie in which Voldemort scarcely appears, and is rarely even spoken of -- which means that he can creep to the fore as the films go on. This is a movie that tries to establish as much of the Hogwarts universe as it can, feeling like something of a road trip through the school -- which means that later films can take all this territory as given and focus more on their stories.
In a way, this movie has what TV critics would call "pilot disease" -- i.e., when the first episode of a series has to set so much stuff up that it just can't get around to telling a good story.
And the story in Sorcerer's Stone
is serviceable enough. It's simple, at least. Voldemort is trying to get the stone. Harry is trying to stop him. And there's one twist, but it's very simple: Snape seems to be helping Voldemort, but it's really Quirrel that's doing so. So that gives them a pretty clear clothesline they can hang the more discursive, "hey, let's see lots of cool magic-stuff" scenes onto.
Of course in the end it degenerates into a sort of game show: the security system for the stone has three devices! Each of them is uniquely suited to one of the kids' abilities! None of them have any logical reason for being there! I've said repeatedly that lesser genre fiction tends to rely on bored, arbitrary, and capricious "game-masters" setting challenges for the heroes, rather than having the heroes face the next logical challenge in their story. In this case, the arbitrary game master is whoever designed the stone's security system. (Dumbledore, I guess?)
So: it's not a *good* movie, but it doesn't doom the franchise. It sets up what needs setting up. On to The Chamber of Secrets
!Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
This is the second movie in the Harry Potter
After the inauspicious misfire of Sorcerer's Stone
, I spent a lot of the second film figuring out what had gotten fixed since last time.
First and foremost, Daniel Radcliffe is worlds better. He's not *great* in Chamber of Secrets
, but at least he's not just staring wide-eyed at things. You can tell from his first lines that the glimmerings of a character (rather than just a plot device with glasses) are there. And the story gives him stuff to work with beyond "Wow, this new world of magic is new and magical." Having Harry deal (peevishly) with the hassles of his newfound celebrity is a great direction for the story to go in. Fighting a bad guy is not particularly illustrative of character -- mostly, it just lets you know "this is a character who fights bad guys". But making a character deal with a self-aggrandizing professor who wants to associate with Harry just because Harry is famous -- that allows for a more nuanced response. That tells us more about who we're dealing with, and how he differs from everybody else.
It's also helpful that the film series starts to feel like it's *about* something here in volume two. The class-warfare aspect of Voldemort's rise to power is absolutely perfect. We've been talking in Strange Worlds
about how a story's villain should be a 'dark mirror' of the hero, and there's no better counterpart for the hero with the commonest name possible, raised by a family of no particular renown in Little Whinging, than Tom Malvolio Riddle, self-named as "Lord Voledemort", champion of the 'purebloods', who is evidently planning some dire pogrom against those who are not of noble and magical birth.
I also love that, having established this world, they can begin their long-term project to include every great British film actor as a guest star. It's always wonderful to see Kenneth Brannagh show up in a film, and it's even better to see him take such delight in the job. I watch this performance and can only conclude that Mr. Brannagh is a big Potter fan and he's giddy at getting to sink his teeth into one of Rowling's wonderfully-caricatured supporting characters.
They expand the world in other ways, too. We see some new locations within Hogwart's. We meet some new characters, like Gideon and Lucius. And they start to sketch in Draco's insecurity and self-consciousness, adding the first hints of nuance to a plain old villain who would twirl a moustache if he had one.
It's also good to see that, tonally, we're getting darker. Tom Riddle's diary is a genuinely creepy artifact, and its takeover of Ginny is equally creepifying. The films really delight in endangering the students -- Hogwarts must be the most dangerous school in the world, and would be closed in a heartbeat if common sense had any say in the matter. Perhaps this is one of the book's more attractive qualities; the kids these days are kept ensconced in such coccoons of safety these days that a madcap game of Quidditch, with its constant threat of falling off a broom and plummeting to one's death, must seem pretty awesome.
All of this is making Chamber of Secrets
sound like a much better movie than it is. To be clear: it's not that great. The three kids haven't really hit their stride as actors yet, the plot feels like a Scooby-Doo episode, and Christopher Columbus is unimpressive. There's a lot of money up there on the screen, but he usually works like a journeyman TV director, trying to churn out another 42-minute drama before his deadline. Okay, we've got a two-person conversation? Let's just do a master shot, and then cut to each speaker in a close-up when they speak. Done. (It makes one appreciate a more syncopated, less on-the-nose approach to editing.)
When Cuarón steps in, we'll see some more sophistication.
Yes, the CGI is still awful. The people who designed Dobby apparently don't know how skin works -- real skin has a trait called "subsurface scattering
", wherein light penetrates the surface of the skin, and then gets reflected back by things *under* that surface -- so Dobby has that plasticine look that's charming in Wallace and Gromit
but fake-looking in live action. And Hogwarts still doesn't look convincingly old. Surfaces are all very clean, very undamaged, and very regular, in the way that CGI models are but thousand-year-old castles aren't. And the less said about the creature work, the better.
But still, it's better than the first film, and generally, it's on the right track. Onward to Azkaban
!Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This is the third movie in the Harry Potter
It is also widely-regarded to be the best in the series, and it's easy to see why. When you sit down to watch Azkaban
, you realize almost instantly that you're watching the 'good movie' version of this material.
And it's good because Alfonso Cuarón is a *confident* director.
Let's talk opening shots. Columbus starts Chamber of Secrets
with an impossible tracking shot, careening through Monet-colored clouds, swooping across Little Whinging in a bird's-eye view, and veering down to Harry's window at privet drive. Newell starts Goblet of Fire
with another giant tracking shot, this one following a sinister-looking CGI snake through a spooky CGI graveyard.
How does Cuarón start Azkaban
A little light turns on.
And then it turns off.
It turns on again, a little larger now.
And then it turns off.
Compared to this, the openings of the films before and after Azkaban
come off as a little desperate: "See? See? Isn't this something cool? See how the camera acted all CRAZY? Isn't it breathtaking? Aren't you impressed with me? WON'T YOU PLEASE PLEASE KEEP WATCHING?!!" Cuarón, on the other hand, knows some things. He knows that you're a Harry Potter fan. He knows you've sit down to watch the latest installment of possibly the most beloved film franchise in current release.
He knows that he already has your attention.
So instead of trying to blow you out of your seat with whiz-bang special-effects-in-your-face, Cuarón simply draws you in. What *is* this light? Why is it flashing? What am I looking at? An exercise: try counting how many times, watching either Columbus movie, you asked yourself the question, "What am I looking at?"
I'm guessing you still have fingers left over.
This may seem like a silly thing to focus on -- and probably one that has as much to do with the source material, and with Steve Kloves' adaptation, as it does with Cuarón's work -- but the opening shot of Azkaban
sets a pattern, and an admirable one at that, for the entire film. Throughout Azkaban
, Cuarón doesn't *have* to show you jack shit. He doesn't *have* to impress you with anything. "Impressing you" isn't a priority for Cuarón. All he cares about is doing what it takes to draw you into this world.
The special effects in Azkaban
are far and away the best of the series. Yes, technology advanced quite a bit as the series progressed, but the quality of special effects is not all about how effective your computers are. (I mean, think about it: on some level, film effects are still trying to catch up to classics like Blade Runner
and The Thing
.) The effects are so good that this movie becomes a sort of touchstone -- you can compare the other films in the series to this one, see how they fall short in the effects department, and learn something new about how effects are supposed to work.
So let's say you see a cheesy CGI effect in, I don't know, one of Columbus's movies, and you're wondering: why does it suck?
Well, the first question you should ask yourself is, "Where is the light coming from?" Often, an shot looks fake because there's light coming from an impossible location -- in one of the opening shots of Goblet
, a man is pointing a flashlight forward, but the light source in the scene is apparently at his feet and aimed at his face. That just looks wrong.
But, okay, maybe the light is coming from somewhere sane. Fine. The next question to ask yourself: "If the light's coming from there, what should *not* be lit?" This is Lighting 101. If the sole light source is in front of you, your back should be dark. If the sole light source is on your left, your right should be dark. It used to be, if you used CGI, the effect would look so dreadful and cheap that you could only hope to cheat your way through by keeping the CGI element barely visible in the shadows. These days, directors are desperately *afraid* to keep CGI in the shadows. It's like they're saying, "We paid a ton of money to have this space alien, so by god, WE'RE GONNA SEE THE SPACE ALIEN!" All of it. Even the bits that shouldn't be lit.
So we get these CGI beasties that are, perhaps, lit by some sane light source that could actually exist... and then all the parts that should be in *shadow* are lit, too. It's like the computer modellers have cranked up the "ambient lighting" setting so far that suddenly, *everything* is visible. And some part of your brain says, "Wait. Light doesn't work like that."
And this comes back to my point about "directorial desperation" from before. A desperate director says, "Look! Look! Look at every pixel of this CGI creation! Isn't it cool? Aren't you impressed? You're going to keep watching, right? RIGHT?!" Cuarón plays it differently. If you can't see all of the effect, you can't see all of the effect. And that's okay. Again, the priority is creating a consistent world that draws you in.
Okay. Let's say, by some crazy luck, this CGI effect is lit correctly. Next question: "Is this effect in focus?" I told you above that, in a typical CGI effect, every part is lit all the time, even when that makes no sense. Similarly, in a typical CGI effect, everything is in focus all the time, even when that makes no sense. If it's a dark, shadowy night, and there's one space alien in the foreground, and one space alien in the deep background, and both of them are in sharp focus simultaneously, that looks cheesy and wrong. That's because, outside of rather sophisticated trickery, cameras don't work like that. Similarly, if you're viewing some giant monster crashing around the forest, you probably don't have the entire creature in focus all the time. You'll see one "focal plane" in sharp focus, and the rest will be a bit blurred -- because that's how cameras work. (Hell, that's how *eyes* work.)
As a side note, some truly great CGI work acknowledges that sometimes, camera *operators* aren't perfect, either. The work that Zoic Studios did for Firefly
and for the Battlestar Galactica
remake was remarkable, because they did something unthinkable: they made CGI shots that looked like found footage. When the ghost ship attaches to Serenity in "Bushwhacked"
, the 'cameraman' has to pan and refocus to properly spot the action. Again, the viewer's mind knows, consciously or unconsciously, that this is how film works. Cameras, and camera operators, are imperfect.
So we've talked about lighting, and we've talked about focus. Now let's talk about framing. Ask yourself, "Is this CGI shot framed perfectly?" When the fifty-foot space monster starts demolishing the city, does any corner of it ever go out of frame? Or does the camera keep wheeling around, somehow keeping it from getting even the slightest bit cropped? If the director is afraid to let the effect go out of frame, it looks fake -- because things that occur in real life rarely stay so perfectly composed.
(While we're here, you can also ask yourself, "Is the camera somewhere that it's impossible to be?" and also "Is the camera moving in a way that is impossible?" Both of these can serve as breathtaking effects when used deliberately -- like with the zoom sequence in Panic Room
-- but when that's thrown into a shot that isn't *about* how the shot is impossible, it just detracts from the reality of the effect.)
Again, this speaks to desperation on the part of the director. They *need* to impress you with this CGI thingie. They *need* it to be completely lit, completely in-focus, and completely in-frame -- even though, paradoxically, those choices make the effect look fake. And, because they're so desperate to impress you with the pretty CGI, the effect *needs* to put front and center. So: we already know it needs to be totally lit, totally in-focus, and totally un-cropped. On top of that, it needs to be in the middle of the frame, it needs to be in the foreground, and the camera needs to linger on it. Hell, they need to show reaction shots from the characters, who marvel at just how wondrous the CGI thingy is.
And of course, in straining so hard to make us focus on this effect, directors accomplish two things: (1) they make it look more fake, because if the CGI thingy were just a normal part of this universe (like a blender) why would we be *possibly* be dwelling on it so? and (2) they make it look more fake, because we can notice, consciously or unconsciously, all of these *other* qualities that are fake (like, say, screwing up the subsurface scattering
Cuarón, to his infinite credit, goes the other way. Hell, my favorite special effect in the entire movie is the last shot of Harry walking away from Privet Drive -- we see Marge floating in the sky, and hear her shrieking a bit. Consider this effect: Marge is not lit -- instead, she's in silhouette, because that's how light would work in that shot; she's out of focus; she's not in the foreground; she's not in the center of the shot -- she's nearly cropped out by the top margin. This is the opposite, in every way, of this sort of "desperate lapdog" CGI we were talking about earlier. The shot just doesn't *care* about Marge. The shot is *about* Harry and his frustration with the Dursleys. Marge is just something that exists in the world. And, for that one second, I absolutely believe that the live action and the effect are part of the same space.
Again: Cuarón knows he doesn't *have* to impress you. He just has to build a world. He continues to use CGI with this confidence through the rest of the film. The Shrieking Shack's interior tilts back and forth almost imperceptibly. A waiter clears off a table in the Leaky Cauldron, and casually picks up a wine bottle with his washcloth and tucks it away into nothingness. His camera pans up past the Gringott vault door's elaborate locking mechanism, and the moving bars get cropped out left and right (and top and bottom) by the moving frame.
When the Dementors first appear, half the effects in the shot aren't the CGI creatures at all -- they just digitally add the kids' breath, puffing out in visible little clouds, and they show the frost crackling across the window of the train car. When the CGI creatures finally show up, they're designed to match some underwater puppets that Cuarón had hoped to composite into the shot.
One can even talk about the world-building beyond just CGI. For instance, as far as I can tell, Cuarón is using practical effects whenever he can -- to the point that it sometimes has a kind of Peter-Jackson-y feel. You can fault it, in some cases, for looking "fake", but at least it's a fake thing that occupies the same space as the actors. He's also fond of putting nods to book details in the background of his shots (such as the numerous ghost-chase bits).
What impresses me most of all is, in spite of all this realism, he still manages to make Hogwarts seem magical. And he does this primarily through a clever little trick: he shoots the opening "real world" sequences at the Dursleys almost documentary style. It's a subtle thing, but when the family first enters the foyer of their home, the camera has to move a bit *to get out of the way of the characters*. The opening sequence is full of all these vérité touches.
Then, when Harry leaves the house and waits at the playground, we segue out of vérité into a more conventional and formal filmmaking style. And Cuarón does it really smoothly -- suddenly, we've got jump cuts and insert shots that don't feel documentary-like at all, but they still follow Harry's point of view. We're moving from the details a documentarian would notice, to the sequence of details in the setting that Harry would notice. By the time we're aboard the Knight Bus -- and adjusting the color palette, and introducing our wacky magical characters one at a time -- we're in a heightened reality that contrasts with the opening sequence at the Dursleys -- but we still haven't landed in the candy-colored fakery of the Columbus films.
Whew. I've said way, way too much about how the film is shot. Strangely I don't have much to say about the story itself, probably because I'm exhausted by this point. Suffice it to say, I love the slow build of danger and menace over the course of these films, and Azkaban
, while still pleasant and magical, hints at how bad things are going to get. I love that they brought in Michael Gambon, who plays a much more active and attentive Dumbledore, whereas Richard Harris was more of the "kindly-if-tired old man who hints at having secret powers". Given that Dumbledore becomes much more active than the kindly old exposition-machine/deus-ex-machina that he was in the first two films, this is a necessary improvement.
And now, onward to the remaining, lesser films.Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
This is the fourth movie in the Harry Potter
In the same way that Azkaban
instantly told me that this was a different, more grounded and engaging style of filmmaking, Goblet
instantly told me that I was going to be disappointed. We watch a CGI snake slither through a CGI graveyard
just before we pan up to a CGI opening title. Everything's lit, everything's in focus, everything's in frame.
Okay, so it's going to be *that* kind of a look, then.
The weird thing is, Mike Newell is great at character work. Donnie Brasco
, for example, was phenomenal. And he's great at romance and light comedy -- see his work on Four Weddings and a Funeral
. But apart from a TV adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask
and a regrettable turn directing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
, Newell's filmography is light and spotty when it comes to genre work and adventure stories.
If you go into this film knowing that about its director, then the strengths and weaknesses of the film won't surprise you. Basically, Goblet of Fire
is a phenomenal Freaks and Geeks
episode lodged in a logy, unexciting adventure story.
When a director creates a middle-school dance that's ten times more exciting than a fight with a dragon, he's either succeeded admirably at the former or failed miserably at the latter. I think it's a little of both. Newell has a phenomenal feel for capturing the awkwardness of being young. The sequence in which McGonagall first teaches the students to dance is just priceless in its honesty. Even the not-really-a-love-triangle between Harry, Hermione, and Ron -- often not the strongest part of the films -- is handled deftly here, with both Skeeter's intimations of a Harry/Hermione OTP
and Ron's last-minute "hey, you could come with one of us" invite to Hermione causing equally epic amounts of awkwardness.
Honestly, it's only now that I remember how *bad* all this teen drama was in the book. It was credible, sure, but it was also annoying -- I sat back from these middle-schoolers, wincing at how stupid they were acting. Newell actually turns this into a strength in the film. The comparison to Freaks and Geeks
was deliberately chosen -- in both cases, you watch young people disastrously mis-read their peers or mis-choose their behaviors, and instead, you *feel* for them, because... I don't know. Because magic. Because Paul Feig as a showrunner and Mike Newell as a director have skills that I
am unaware of.
(Side note: for the running time of this movie, I was an ardent Neville/Ginny 'shipper. I just assumed that any time we didn't see both characters, they were off making out somewhere.)
Meanwhile, there was a magical epic storyline going on, and it just wasn't that good. For starters, Barty, Jr.'s plan is one of those over-elaborate evil plans
that just gets dumber the more you think about it. Okay, so I want to kill Harry Potter. Great. I could just Avada-Kadavera him in Hogsmeade, but no: I will abduct one of England's greatest Aurors, take his form via one of the hardest-to-produce potions in existence, and do that solely so I can... kill Harry Potter? No, no, so I can enter Potter into a tournament, wherein, assuming he wins, he will touch a talisman that zaps him over to where Voldemort can finish him off.
I would not trust a movie villain to run a Tastee-Freez
And it sets up an entire storyline to be, *sigh*, yet *another* "game show" story. The story doesn't come organically or authentically from what characters want and how they face adversity. No, no, it's basically yet another reality show, wherein a set of arbitrary challenges are presented to the hero, and none of those challenges have much to do with relationships, or themes, or emotional objectives, and the hero's actions don't have much effect on the challenges presented. Nope. The game masters just keep goosing the story with new plot points, and we see how those play out.
On the plus side, you get cliffhangers for free, but nothing that happens really *means* anything. As far as I can tell, the magical epic only lights up when it crosses paths with the Freaks and Geeks
episode. When the Triwizard Tournament is really about Ron getting over his jealousy of Harry (which comes from nowhere, but anyway)
, then it means something. When Hermione goes to the Yule Ball with character-cipher Viktor Krum, that means something. But when Harry has to run through a maze? that just means "Harry is running through a maze".
(Side note: eilanora
points out that Goblet of Fire
is some 700 pages, almost twice as long as the previous two, and might have been, artistically, a better candidate for splitting into two films than Deathly Hallows
. Among other things, we lose the subplot about the House-Elf Liberation Front, which resonates nicely with the overall themes of the series.)
For next time: continuing to listen to the audiobook of Dark Force Rising
. I'm re-watching Firefly
, but I doubt I'll write about that. Also, I need to write up my thoughts about the latter four films in the Harry Potter series -- but given that I've already written 5,000 words or so, I'm going to put that off to next week's update.
 This made Robbie Coltrane's performance as Hagrid quite a welcome relief. It was nice to have one simple, straight, grounded performance to hold on to, in the midst of all of this cartoonish mugging. Man, if only Daniel Radcliffe had been on that level of believability by that point.
 This process really comes to fruition in Half-Blood Prince, of course.
 I suspect that this is one of the biggest factors that make these CGI sequences so often look "video game-y". In video games, with very few exceptions, everything is in focus all the time. In films, with very few exceptions, they are not.
 Is this starting to sound like Chris Columbus yet?
 Nearly identical shots appear in films from Newell and Yates, but the various moving bits stay in frame at all times.
 ... where all the centuries-old gravestones are in perfect, shining condition -- perhaps because they're maintained by magic, but probably because CGI is bollocks at making things look distressed, damaged, used, or old.
 ... and to some extent, Rowling herself.
contemplative · Music: