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Harry Potter and the Order of Silence

As the eve of the Harry Potter phenomenon draws closer to its next crescendo, a battle of civil and journalistic rights is being fought, and the casualties are beginning to pile up.  Behind the magic and the glamour, the fight behind the scenes grows uglier with each passing minute, as lawyers and ammo are sent storming across the phone lines and the Internet.

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How Harry Potter is rich and creamy, like processed cheese

Why is “Harry Potter” so popular? No one is mistaking the Potter series for a literary masterwork; in fact, I could make a pretty persuasive argument that J.K. Rowling’s writing shares more in common with such foods as Pringles and Velveeta than it does anything pertaining to literature. The entire storyline seems to be the most recycled, processed mishmash of every major myth, legend, and fairy tale in known history. What makes it special, like the foods mentioned above, is the blend. Everyone can identify with it, and it creates a new sensation that, while familiar, is still completely fresh.

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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

On a day like this, I face my darkest hour: I am tempted to quit writing, and worse, I am tempted to quit film. Sometimes suffering can be worse than death, and that’s what I’m doing right now. You see, I have just come back, after months and months of delay, from seeing “The Fellowship of the Ring.” And did I love itr

“With all my heart, no.”

Let me prequalify this editorial with a little bit o’ background. I am a big fan of fantasy, but I am a cold-blooded hatemongering Nazi when it comes to middle-Earth. I hate Tolkien. I hate little creatures like Ewoks and Hobbits and Midgets and Mini-Trolls. I hate muddy settings in the Earth, where Enya belts through invisible speakers and fog enters my sexual openings, where everything is grim and grey and oh-so-in-tune-with-Gaia-and-nature. I’m all for purity of fantasy, a holocaust of fantasticism: I need my gothic-Victorian castles in “Harry Potter,” with flowing robes and gold and mystery, with suits of armor hand-crafted by masters who were just as concerned with the designs of the lions on the breast as they were with the suit’s actual effectiveness. I need a place where there are 15 categories of “wizard” and too many different spells to count, with complex incantations and wonderous visual results. I need a world that’s almost completely removed from the shithole society we live in.

The last fucking thing I need is to see Christopher Lee and Ian McKellan engage in a wizard’s duel that’s basically two old-ass Jedis™ masturbating each other with the Force™ and throwing each other through doors. If you’re a fucking wizard, where’s the fucking fireballr Where are the spells to make the other person insaner Why use force-of-gravityr If you’re a wizard, why do you need a swordr An archer needs no sword. A short-weapons expert needs no sword. Why, oh why, in this film, does Gandalf have a swordr Where are the spellsr Did he spend all his mojo making fireworks for the West Hobbitwood pride machiner

Ahhh, but as cold and cruel as I can be about that stuff, I can also forgive it. I understand that my own personal preference for the fantastical does clash with Tolkien’s world, and I *do* see what other people cherish in it. I can, indeed, embrace a world of elves and Hobbits and mud and Enya. But I cannot embrace the film called “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I just can’t.

Hobbits and Enya aside, the film is visually breathtaking. So is “Blade Runner.” In fact, this film is going to be the next “Blade Runner.” It’s a horrible, horrible attempt to convey a rich, layered, deep-ass story with a few broad strokes. “Blade Runner” sucks my ass after a day and night in a Mexican bar: great vision, bad storytelling. FOTR suffers from many of the same mistakes: poor character development, awkward dialogue, a strange, jarring distorting of space and time, and an overall shallowness to the quest. All this I blame on the script, not the film.

Part of the problem is director Peter Jackson’s doggedness to stick to Tolkien’s story. To this, I can only say that, in film, when changes are necessary, you make them. Kubrick butchered Stephen King, and rightfully so. Anne Rice butchered her own book when she made it into a script. JK Rowling sat over very specific changes in dialogue and circumstance when Kloves hammered out the first Potter script. Sometimes characters or scenes are removed or rewritten; not just to shorten the pace, but to enhance the story. Note that there is a difference between simply editing out the parts that are extraneous, and rewriting out the parts that could be even stronger: Jackson has chosen the former, and he has chosen poorly.

Okay, so let’s do this right now: the film is 3 hours long, and yet, features almost NO character development or background story for the 9 main members of Fellowship. NINEr! WHY NINEr In a book, okay, there’s time, there’s pages… not in film. So, let’s make it SIX or SEVEN. We don’t need FOUR hobbits, TWO will work just fine. Then we might have had an extra 10 fucking minutes to tell us a little bit about each of the characters. Then we might care if they live or they die. As it is, we’re being paid to care, bought off by a giant CGI monster made of shit and fire… stuff like that captures our eye. And then we say “Shit Monster… evil! Shit Monster kill good guy! Nooooooooooo!!” Sorry, I want to know why I should be moved when the shit monster does his thing. Is that too much to askr

Jackson has invented some incredible, jaw-dropping camera angles here, hanging his lens from wires dangling above the trees and filming the action from an overhead that we could never imagine. Sometimes we drop to the ground, and we get involved… limbs fly, people scream, it’s like Braveheart on Vicodin with Enya in the background. It’s too ethereal. It loses the grit. I almost fell asleep during several of the fight sequences… it’s like being stoned and floating above the action, floating, floating away, floating up, I’ve got the munchies… oh cool, Frodo’s having another acid flashback from that evil Ring… munchies. Bad camera choreography, man. It doesn’t film the action right. In fact, a friend pointed out that it feels like a goddamn Oz/Kiwi film… there are about 50 shots too many of surreal backgrounds and ooooh-ahhh-twisty beautiful nature. Yes, I *know* Peter Jackson is from New Zealand, but you know what, fucking Chris Columbus is American, land of the shit film, and “Harry Potter” still feels perfectly balanced.

Sorry, I’m ranting, and I need to summarize for you. I hated this film on it’s own merits. The script was weak and cut meat out in the wrong places. The camera choreography is lacking. The score is lame. The Enya and Lorena McKennitt bullshit going on the background needs to stop. There’s no character development. Technically, some of the effects in the film are fucking AWFUL… I know it was rushed a bit, so the next two films have NO excuse. And for all that bullshit ‘forced-perspective’… call Jim Henson Productions before you do that shit again. I caught so many mistakes with it that it wasn’t funny. Your scales are off and your camera angles are showing it. Some of it was great… Ian McKellan does seem 7-feet tall at times, but not in any shot with Ian Holm.

What works for the filmr The performances, for one. McKellan is sharp, as usual. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin manage not to suck, which is rare. Liv Tyler is limited to 3 minutes of screen time, which is very good. Viggo Mortgage-sohhnnn is kickass as always. Hugo Weaving is still stuck somewhere in between Agent Smith and that fucking drag queen from Priscilla. Ian Holm is usually cool, but here he has a strange awkwardness about him. Cate Blanchett is almost wasted. Billy Bob Thornton is really cool, too. He is! No, he’s not in this movie, but he should be. He can be the Texas retard that saves Frodo and puts the ring on his cock while belting ‘yeee-haws’ and sniffing coke off Angelina Jolie’s floatation breasts. But that’s another rant…

The film has good vision. It has a lot of heart, a lot of ambition. BUT — like a tweaking tour guide in the White House, the film is so intent on hitting every-single-major-point-of-interest so as not to piss off the purists, it forgets to tell a story. It forgets that some of us have NOT read the bloody book and do NOT know the backstory of these characters. You don’t make a film for the people who already know the story, you make it for those who don’t. That’s why “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” and “Indy Jones” all work. That’s why this film has failed.

Or has itr It’s currently in the top three all-time best films list at IMDB.COM, where it’s been since before day one. It’s made almost 300 million domestically. It could very well win Best Picture come Oscar-time. The purists love it. The fans love it. The Academy loves it. The critics love it. The people love it. Kids love it. Old fuckers love it. The “Blade Runner” experiment finally has succeeded: create a film that’s large enough, that’s beloved by enough, that’s loud enough, that’s pretty enough, and stick in plenty of fucking Enya, and it will be truly epic. Hey, it worked for “Titanic.” And they didn’t have to pay Enya’s salary, they hired a cheap knock-off.

So I’m swimming against the tide here. Based on public opinion, maybe I’m alone in my hatred for muddy fantasy and my love for gothic fantasticism (based on public opinion, you’d swear it was the other way around, actually. Notice that religious freaks aren’t spooked by wizards who use The Force™ to open doors, but it’s heretical to make a feather levitate… hmmmm…. hmmmmm….) Maybe I’m wrong to ask a film to tell me a story first and give me eye candy later. Maybe I’m wrong to want to improve upon a classic. Maybe I’m wrong to want a filmmaker to take risks, when all he has to do is “not fuck up”. Maybe I’m the only person who still believes that a film’s score is paramount to its success or failure. Maybe I’m wrong to think that film should be GOOD, not just good for the market niche that’s already read the fucking book. Maybe I’m just wrong.

Or maybe you all got assfucked by the marketing machine again.

Rating: D

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Harry Potter” (and the whatever stone) is one of the best films I have seen this year, and while this has been a dreadful year, it has also produced “Memento” and “AI.” In the most twisted of ironies, Uberdirector Spielberg chose to honor Kubrick with “AI” instead of cashing in with “Harry Potter,” and it may have been the wisest decision of his career. I feel that Spielberg could have ruined this film; more on this in a bit.

“Harry Potter” is based on a book, a popular book, which many (too many) people have read and bear stringent expectations. Other than pure money, the only reasons to convert such a novel into a film are to 1) broaden the appeal, especially for those who don’t read fiction (translation: men over the age of 16) and 2) show a forced vision to an audience, bringing to life (and sight) images which could only exist in the mind… and in a computer or on a sketch pad.

The key to success is simple: don’t mess it up. A director like Spielberg could have strayed too far from the novel, or more accurately, the borrowed, processed vision that J.K. Rowling has so daringly re-written for today’s generations. “Harry Potter,” as both successful novel and now film, is a wonderous, Velveeta-like smish-smashing of every childhood fantasy, fairy tale, folklore-myth-thing, and dream, creating a world that is both fantastical and gothic, surreal and yet grounded.

Another key to the story’s success is its unwillingness to bend from traditional Euro-myths and legends. The fact that every actor, every set, and every atom of the film is British is not some twisted culturalist facism by Rowling, but rather, an assurance that we will recognize the more fantastical aspects of the tale. To borrow from a close friend and colleage, I dare any of you to name a popular fairy tale, style, or character, that is purely and originally American-born. All of our favorite stories come from countries and cultures older than our own, and films like “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tap into the very images that graced many a bedtime story. “Harry Potter” does the same.

Let’s talk technical. Chris Columbus is a Spielberg-clone, and a damn good one… I like his films, and I even liked “Bicentennial Man.” Don’t get me wrong… Columbus is NOT that talented, but he’s solid enough in his vision and technicality to get all the elements on the film reel. And he does his job perfectly; he takes little true risk, and delivers in every place that counts. The score is wonderous, and unmistakably John Williams… while I reserve laud for composers such as Barry, Newton-Howard, and Zimmer for having tremendous range and ability, Williams is the very best at what he does. He is so good at it, in fact, that he has mastered the ability to be subtle (see: “Saving Private Ryan”) and to showboat (see: “Star Wars”). This film’s score is all showboat, all-riffs, all classical epic-movie-music gloating, and it is precisely what’s needed.

I also will toss props to the editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, for the film’s pacing is nearly flawless. The film runs for more than two hours, but you’ll never notice it. In fact, there’s little editing trickery… very few fades, no quick cut-ups, just damn good timing.

Several critics have complained that the film doesn’t last long enough. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to cram an entire book into a two hour movie. Many things are left implied and unspoken, simply because there isn’t enough time for it. When a film contains too much information to show, either details get left out (most films reiterate the same points repeatedly, explaining and justifying absolutely everything. Critics call this ‘strong, planned screenwriting’.) or the film contains a zillion edits and rocks by at 100 MPH, causing nausea, irritation, and possible blindness. Having said that — considering the latter part — I really liked Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” and I like anime too. For the kids, though, Harry Potter and its creative team have elected the former route.

As a result of that choice, some people and some critics feel the film is disjointed and incoherent. I’m sure the book fills in all the gaps nicely; I have not read it, and don’t intend to. If you are expecting a complete story from this film, with all the ends tied up, you will not get it. For time and monetary considerations, the film does cut corners, and while complete by its own means, feels more like a slice of life on a much larger timeline. A lot of the blanks are left unfilled for good reason.

The performances are outstanding across the board. The three principle characters, all kids, are more than sufficient for this type of film, and young Daniel Radcliffe has that kind of sick Haley Joel intensity and charisma that makes him likeable in all sorts of evil ways. I saw this guy on TRL (sigh, yes, I watch MTV because I like the eye candy) and he was being swamped by horny 16-year-old *N’Sync fans in towels. Poor guy. The supporting cast is a damned celebrity-Jeopardy spotting game of British celebrities, and more accurately, classically-trained actors. Everyone is in this thing, even some of the Pythons. The casual fan will never notice, but the filmgeeks out there are sure to spot those actors whom they cherish, but whose names they know not.

Why is the film so goodr I have no idea. J.K Rowling’s book probably gets the most credit. The casting directors did their job. Cinematography is a long orgasm. Steve Kloves’ script is faithful and doesn’t mess up, just like Columbus’ directing. Instinct tells me that the film is good because everyone knew what they were doing… a quick glance of the technical credits at the end confirms that everyone who’s anyone works on this project (even Henson has their fingerprints all over the place). Maybe I actually witnessed a true team effort for once, rather than one vision trying to overbear everyone elses. Of course, I would never mention this in a public review, but the fact that this film, at $125 million US dollars in budget, did NOT use name actors who cost lots of money, and did NOT use American unions for below-the-line crew… hmmm. That could mean that the people… as in, the labor… actually cost very little, and the great majority of the budget could be spent on effects, pre-production planning, and construction, so they could get it right…. hmmm. Hmmm indeed.

Yeah yeah yeah, so the effects are trippy terrific, the sets are great, the whole look of the film is just sizzlin’ in the best of ways. Look, it all comes down to this: no matter who you are, or what you do, I recommend the film. Big or small, large or tall, old or young, troll or goblin. You’ll dig it. You’ll lose yourself and become enchanted with the film, its characters, and its little nuances. Even its flaws. Will it change mankindr I certainly hope not. But gee, a movie that actually entertained me… it’s been a long time.

PS – I have been remarking to friends that a “hairy potter” is British slang for something quite interesting. Remember, these are the same people that would not release the “Austin Powers” sequel in their country with the word “shag” in the title. I think I’ll write a children’s book called Richard Rash: Private Investigator, and see how that tides over in the states.

Rating: A