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Twisted Endings

French Canadian cinema tends to produce at least one or two critical darlings a year that do well at the Quebec box office while winning awards at festivals around the world. One of these films, Incendies is doing well, at least by modest Canadian standards. Dennis Villeneuve’s drama swept the Genies (Canadian film awards) and even got an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The Toronto Film Festival has been screening it at the Lightbox almost daily for a couple of months, a pretty good indication of Incendies‘ warm reception, if not its financial success.

Worth noting is that Villeneuve is not tackling nationalistic subject matter. He’s not making Paschendaele or Score: A Hockey Musical. He’s not even discussing events taking place in Canada like he did in Polytechnique, his last feature. Incendies is based on Canadian-Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a brother and sister uncovering their mother’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war. The story begins in Montreal where Nawal Marwan slips into a coma, leaving only a cryptic letter pointing her children homeward. It’s a detective story but not a very talky one. Villeneuve loves his long steadicam shots and orchestrates scene with an eye for visuals, not an ear for the dialogue, which is precise, Spartan or dull, depending on your sensibilities.

Two wrongs make a right, right? Hockey is losing its grip on young people across Canada; the musical has been a dying genre since MGM lost its mind after 1960. How could this go wrong?

So while Incendies is not about Canada, it touches on what is often referred to as “the immigrant experience”; a pretty empty and patronizing phrase that suggests there’s a unifying truth behind the disparate backstories of the hundreds of thousands of newcomers that start new lives in Canada. At the opening of the film Marwan’s children know next to nothing of their cultural and biological heritage. Her daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) tries to step into her mother’s shoes by travelling to her homeland. Though I hope most Canadian immigrants are not escaping from lives as horrible as Marwan’s, there is something in this movie that speaks to the confusing process of discovering the skeletons in your parents’ closets and the disorientation the children of immigrants go through when coming across unexpected secrets, like a missed step in the dark.

But let’s not turn this into a Canadian public service announcement: Incendies‘ main focus is the desperate struggle between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon from 1975-1990. French Canadian company micro_scope co-produced with France’s TS Productions and Phi Group.  Until the film’s very end, Marwan’s flashbacks are astoundingly realistic.

The Spoiler of What Spoiled the Story

Marwan spends much of the film searching for the illegitimate child her brothers gave to an orphanage. After the murder of her uncle’s family, Marwan becomes an assassin for the Muslim faction (I think) and assassinates the Christian warlord responsible (I think he’s from the South Lebanese Army).  She is taken to one of the notorious Khiam prisons in the south of Lebanon, where a professional torturer named Abou Tarek tries to break her spirit by raping her. In a self-consciously shocking plot twist, it turns out her child was taken from the orphanage to become a sniper for the regional militias, eventually becoming a feared torturer and rapist.

Is he called Abou Tarek? It seems I keep talking a lot about King Oedipus in this blog, but this time Villeneuve leaves me no option. It turns out that Marwan was raped by her own son and her twin children’s step-brother is also their father. As if this were not enough, Incendies concludes by Marwan speaking beyond the grave to her children – including Tarek, who is now a bus cleaner in Montreal. In her letters she stresses the enduring love she feels for them, no matter how they turned out, and while the tone is supposed to be redemptive and even heart-warming, my insides remained cold and queasy. This would be, I think, the equivalent of Sophocles writing an epilogue in which Oedipus smiles and reflects on the happy memories (bar incest) he has of his mother/wife Jocasta.

"We'll always have Thebes."

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the ending unwelcome.

Christopher Bell of IndieWIRE:

 The result is so overly-shocking that the real surprise is the audacity of the filmmaker to commit to such a thing—to reference an early capsule review of ours, it’s more or less lifted from a soap opera.

Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice: (again with the soap-opera comparison)

Nawal’s travails are more in the vein of a Latin American soap opera than Greek tragedy, and Jeanne and Simon’s climactic, genuinely god-awful discovery plays like artistic sleight-of-hand rather than the profoundly tautological revelation it aspires to be.

Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail:

The conclusion of Incendies feels more ingenious than convincing. It’s designed by the artist as puppet-master for worthy didactic reasons. The problem becomes awkwardly obvious in the final flurry of voice-over letters that conclude the film in an unearned shower of healing and reconciliation.

In drama, less if often more, especially if your story includes civilians being burnt alive in buses and children hiding from snipers in urban rubble. Incendies is genuine and forceful until it reveals the emotional manipulation that remains effectively screen behind any resonant work of art.

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Hanna, Fairy Tales, and Homeschooling

Once in a while a film comes along that redefines your expectations, that does something new with a lot of old things, a work of art as inspired as it is flawed. Good or bad become almost empty judgments. Some messes can only be made by geniuses. Maybe Joe Wright got lucky, but let’s hope not. Hanna may not beat the competition, but it’s a rare movie that changes the rules of the game.

Consider what some critics have been saying:

Bland title, beguiling movie. Hanna is far from perfect but, courtesy of star Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright, it’s one of those imperfect pictures that manages to command and hold our attention straight from the opening frames. –Rick Groen

Of course the movie re­minded me of “Kick-Ass” (2010), the action fantasy about a deadly young girl. I like “Hanna” a good deal more, because in its quirky way, it has something to say, a certain wit and a command of the visual poetry of action. –Roger Ebert

Wright’s earlier credits, including two mannered period pieces, may not have suggested this was his cup of tea. But now that he has found a groove, maybe he can rescue American action movies from the wasteland of boring spectacles and keep the focus where it belongs—in speedy timing and giddy payoffs. –Eric Kohn

And those who were not so positive:

Hanna is contrived, pretentious and not worth seeing even for the perverse pleasure of watching first-rate talents make second-rate fools of themselves. Hanna is an incomprehensible pile of gibberish with great credentials. – Rex Reed

Kick-Ass is mentioned in a lot of the reviews, sometimes to elevate Hanna to comparison or to equate both films as the same overly-stylistic heaps of junk. Here’s my take. Even if we leave character and story aside, Kick-Ass comes up short in inventiveness of genre subversion. Of course, there is a 12 year-old girl kicking ass, and none of the heroes have super powers. The trailers scream “No Powers? No Problem” and then add one qualification: you have to be an expert in martial arts to be a masked vigilante. I felt like Lionsgate was selling me sparkling fruit juice instead of champagne. Their argument that somehow teenagers in suits could become superheroes (again, with martial arts training) is similar to claiming Batman is just an ordinary guy (with lots of money and Himalayan martial arts training).

In Hanna our hero is super-human. Saoirse Ronan’s lone wolf is the product of the same vague biogenetic mutations that created Captain America and Spiderman. While Hanna’s strength and agility supply the action scenes, there is a lot more going on genre-wise. It’s a revenge thriller, fairy tale, and extended Oedipal narrative rolled into a bewildering – and yes, sometimes pretentious – yet simple tale of adolescence. That’s a lot more than I can say for Kick-Ass, which starts out in teen comedy and then switches lanes into a blood-soaked opera of retribution without emotional or intellectual payoff.

Homeschooling

She knows the facts and yet she doesn’t know the world. Wright juxtaposes Hanna’s disturbing capacity for murder with her naivety. Sophie (Jessica Barden) schools Hanna in normal teenager-hood and family interaction (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng are the very convincing parents). As critics have said at greater length and in better prose, this contrast deepens the heroine’s conflict in her own search for trust and identity.

You can read Hanna’s isolated upbringing as a parable for helicopter parents. Erik (Bana) is a protective and loving father who hates to part with his daughter, an inevitable stage of parenthood. He even stumbles over the word “sperm” when teaching Hanna about whales. All parents should shield their children from the dark, deceptive sexual world outside the cabin; the question is when do you let them go? Those are pretty profound questions for a film involving a German assassins in beach shorts.

The Ice Queen

The original fairy tales in the brother’s Grimm often featured an evil mother figure oppressing pitiable heroines. More often than not the stepmother was the villain (Snow White, Cinderella), partly because she could embody all the nasty aspects of abusive motherhood without being the natural mother. The father is, in contrast, a saint or a dead saint, but in both case powerless to stop the stepmother’s assault on the heroine’s freedom.

For all his lethal abilities (exhibited in one very long Joe Wright take) Erik is powerless against Marissa (Cate Blanchett), an amalgamation of CIA inquisitor, Narnian ice witch, and evil queen-stepmother tropes. Wright fetishizes the character’s menace well: tracking shots of the sharp, stylish high heels, closeups on the perfect white teeth and grey, cold, trench coats that sap any warm femininity out of Blanchett’s appearance.

Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay suggests not too subtly that Marissa’s lack of empathy is a result of motherlessness. When Hanna’s grandmother finds the CIA woman in her home she asks her why she never had kids. “I made certain choices,” Marissa replies (along those lines), screwing a silencer onto her handgun. The implication that Marissa is sterile or too career-oriented for family would piss off Judith Butler but it’s great for the cinemagoer who would not have expected an action film to complicate feminist principles further than cutting disposable bimbos in and out of the plot.

Blonde Oedipus – Spoiler Alert

Erik eventually tells Hanna that he was not her biological father, that she was artificially conceived in a laboratory supervised by Marissa. One of many loose ends is the questions of Hanna’s parenthood, though while I watched the final encounter between Ronan and Blanchett I wondered if a twist was coming. Was Marissa the mother? Was Hanna’s entire journey away from the cabin the Freudian narrative of the child pulling away from one parent and reconciling its hatred to the other?

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud wrote:

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our childhood wishes.

His colleague Carl Jung proposed the Elektra complex for girls, the exact reverse. Hanna shoots Marissa with an arrow and tells her: “I just missed your heart”, an echo of the opening hunting scene wherein she takes down a deer. There’s a lack of emotion in Ronan’s face when she stares down at Marissa, who, oddly, smiles. The retribution seems to already have been replaced by Hanna’s sense of deep satisfaction; maybe the satisfaction that Hanna has severed ties to both parents (both dead).

Moments where the credibility is flimsy only make the Bildungsroman (stories of adolescent development) readings appear more credible. Why did Erik suddenly decide to allow Hanna to join the rest of the world? His only explanation is the one he gives at the moment of his death: “Kids grow up.”

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Sci-Fi Going Corporate?

Greg Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau is maybe best described as sci-fi-lite. It raises issues of free will, fate, and the conflict between personal happiness and professional success, only to reconcile the contradictions nicely. It should not come as a surprise that Matt Damon’s character David Norris leans towards love over career at the pivotal moment, but there’s still food for thought.

Nolfi’s ideas and representations are interesting partly because they aren’t particularly original. In Bureau life is run by angels dressed in three piece suits and fedora’s, bland professionals who are more conscientious than decidedly evil or good.

Terrence Stamp in all his eurovillain greatness

Look at the man above. He’s Thompson, an “agent”, one of the men trying to stop Norris from pursuing Elise Selas (Emily Blunt). At the most basic level, Thompson is Agent Smith(s) from the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), the fabric-weaving Fraternity from Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), and Conducter 71 in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are the referees of our world, challenging our existential desires to be in control of our actions, our futures. Adjustment Bureau most closely resembles Life and Death, where David Niven’s character (David Niven = David Norris maybe?) fights a legal battle with heaven to stay on earth with the woman he loves. In both films angels are dutiful subjects of an enormous and puzzling bureaucracy, slightly Kafkaesque but not overwhelmingly good or evil. Pressburger reinvented heaven in 20th century terms: reception desks and log books for the recently deceased, secular courts, and the same human propensity for clerical error and inefficiency.

Hugo Weaving to the power of x

Why does Fate tend to look like an investment analyst or Wall street banker? It’s remarkable that Nolfi and the Wachowskis went for such a commonplace look (though the Bureau‘s agents could be referencing Mad Men) considering how fantastic their powers are. You have to wonder if agents always dressed like this or simply imitate the dress codes of the elite of each generation. In Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) the Conductor where’s the elite clothing of his society, the French nobility during the Enlightenment.

Christopher Nolan thought along similar lines when conceiving Inception. A.O. Scott of The New York Times was right to observe how “pedestrian” the content of the dreams were. The subconscious, which could have taken any form, was conceived as men in suits in armoured SUVs, shooting at each other. More Fleming than Freud.

In the New Yorker David Denby complained that the dreams did not look like dreams but “different kinds of action movies jammed together“. Like Nolan, Nolfi is clever without being too original: he continually refers back to our common cultural understanding of what looks cool and assured. There’s less time spent reflecting on choice, destiny, etc  in Adjustment Bureau than running around Manhattan, some of it to the Britpop nostalgia of Richard Ashcroft songs. That’s fine  because Nolfi succeeds in making an enjoyable experience. He has no mandate to be thought-provoking.

You could nail Inception and The Matrix for not fully pursuing the interesting philosophical and existential questions they raise, but you would miss the real point of their type of science fiction. Some films are meant to be enjoyed as fast-paced and easily digestible thrillers.

In the post-Star Wars age, I don’t think science fiction is going to be nearly as visually inventive or removed from our symbols and styles. Even our superhero movies have taken a more realistic turn. Superman and Spiderman are out (for the time being); Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are in love with technology and commercial intrigue; Ironman is a love song to rascally capitalism.

Expect more men in suits, less Bladerunner or Brazil-ian dystopia. While the dilemmas will remain as interesting, the environments will probably become familiar and sleek, the villains more like executives at Goldman Sachs.

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Small Town Murder Songs

My first remarkable reaction during the opening credits Ed Glass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs was “hey it’s Peter Stormare, the silent wood chipper guy from Fargo!” He’s not so silent, so blonde, and so criminal. But he is still in a movie about a crime in a tiny rural community. Instead of Brainerd, North Dakota, we have Greyfork County, somewhere in Mennonite land, Ontario.

Stormare plays Walter, a police officer who has to deal with the community’s first murder. A stripper’s body is found by a lake, and the London, ON hotshots (yes, this is a very small town) move in to supervise the case.

Walter is an outcast from his Mennonite family, the target of the community’s snide remarks, and the errand boy for Detective Washington’s  (Ari Cohen) investigation. Despite an underwritten character, Stormare lets you see the bottled rage behind the thick moustache, the frustrations of a born-again Christian trying to be good and turn the other cheek. You see his self-delusion, his attempts to justify actions, and to forget the vague violence of his haunting past.

He is further tested when his ex-lover’s boyfriend emerges as the prime suspect. Though Rita (Jill Hennessey) is not exactly a classy dame, it is hard to divine what she sees in Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), a greasy waste of breath with bad teeth. Why does she so adamantly defend him? What did Walter have with her that draws him back to her house despite all the risks it carries for his job?

 

Ed Glass Donnelly: Rising talent?

While Glass-Donnelly ponders his characters, he does not shed a lot of light on them. Clocking in at a slim 75 minutes, the film hands out moments, some that capture relationships brilliantly – Martha Plimpton’s Sam telling Walter about her day at the diner – and others that leave more to be desired – Officer Jim’s teasing of his capital-r Rebellious teenage daughter. Like the beautiful shots of pastureland and migrating geese, these are postcards that make one sigh and think “aah, Ontario… aah, Canada.”

These moments would be served better as pauses to a gripping, hard-boiled narrative, which STMS is not. There are too many slow-motion montages and not enough personality-enhancing dialogue. We see Walter, badass that he is, mollify a guard dog with a branch as the indie folk of Bruce Peninsula says something about living the good life and having a wife and kids.

My impression is Glass-Donnelly treated this as an exercise, a stepping stone in his promising career. While there are the grains of depth and story, there is a little too much self-conscious style injected over so small a film – the inter titles quoting Mennonite proverbs come off as amateurish, not profound.

I think eastern Ontario is ready for a home-grown film noir, a brilliant crime drama that captures rural people, their accents and daily interactions. If you want a Gothic mood with not too much explanation, then STMS will be an hour well-spent. If you wanted something more, a Canadian Fargo or Dirty Harry, then, well, at least it is a little over an hour spent.

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Somewhere Familiar

If you are Sofia Coppola, and you are planning on doing an indie drama with the requisite long takes, pedestrian dialogue, and narrative inconclusiveness, then you also carry a few responsibilities. Since your implicit aim is to reveal the complex inner psychology of characters, it is usually not a good idea to repeat the same scene, with the same reaction on the part of the character you are trying to dissect. It is also a low shot to copy and paste moments and moods from your earlier work, which, while being similarly slow and pensive, at least had the advantage of originality. Finally, do not end on a deliriously ‘heartwarming’ ending when you have done next to nothing to make us sympathetic to the blank protagonist.

I understand what some of the critics are saying about Coppola’s new effort, Somewhere. Roger Ebert praised the director for her observations of the continuously constructed and managed world of Hollywood stardom. Liam Lacey notes the “retro” feel of the film, as if Coppola used her father’s Rumble Fish lenses. I know the film is different, that it is meant to be watched with patience, and that Sofia Coppola is a very talented and smart filmmaker.

What I do not understand is why Somewhere is full of takes so long that even the lowest common denominator has grasped the metaphor before the cut. Why do we need to see a pair of strippers dancing on collapsible poles not once but twice, with nothing but a change of uniform? And why does each scene go on for at least two minutes?

Granted, Coppola is still a good satirist. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a bland celebrity shuttled from LA to Rome, from resplendent suites to press conferences, like a good-looking zombie. There are some clever moments: he exchanges barbs with co-star Michelle Monaghan in between smiling poses for a photographer. Not much holds these isolated moments together, and Coppola said much of the same in the superior Lost in Translation.

Johnny and his daughter Cleo have the more or less the same relationship that Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) had. A bored actor is encased in a hotel. He’s meets a younger woman who changes his nihilistic outlook. This woman likes him (in a platonic way) but is disappointed by his excesses. In fact, the morning when Cleo finds Johnny’s Italian lover at the breakfast table contains the same muted resentment as the scene when Charlotte discovers Bob has picked up a nightclub singer. Not to split hairs, but both the lover and the singer wear a white bathrobe.

It’s time, I think, for Coppola to leave the theme of fame and explore another world, one further away from her own childhood and the moments she glimpsed on her father’s sets.

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The Legacy of Tron

Disney is not one for subtlety.  The name Tron: Legacy nudges us to consider the franchise as a technological stepping point, a unique moment in the development of computers, video game, and science fiction in the 1980s. The 1982 original and the oddly timed successor (28 years later?) definitely do stand out. Not considering any of its cultural merits, Tron has an odd story.

It began when animator Steven Lisberger looked at a reel of computer generated imagery from the firm MAGI in 1976. It was also the year Atari released PONG as a video game. Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner saw the potential of animated entertainment drawn in binary. After being turned down by Warner Bros, MGM, and Columbia, they went to Disney (then having difficulties producing financially successful movies) with storyboards and sample graphics. Disney executives were understandably nervous about bankrolling the project. Mixing digital and live action was something that had not been done before, and Lisberger was pitching an original concept with not even a video game franchise to draw upon.  (See John Culhane’s 1982 article)

However, Tron did find its fans. Arcade lovers and a growing video game subculture saw the promise of the project. The future of film, it seemed, was in the digital realm. I suspect the attraction of Tron was not its themes (ambition, authorial control, competition) but what went into its creation. The film was, and still is, celebrated as a groundbreaking technological achievement. It’s no small wonder Disney felt it necessary to print “A milestone in the history of digital animation” on the DVD cover. Tron did indeed pave the way for CGI, and everyone from Steven Spielberg to Pixar has a debt to the maverick designers in 1982.

Pixar is an interesting heir to their legacy. In 1995 John Lasseter directed a visually brilliant and an engaging movie about toys. Toy Story is an achievement in animation, story (the emotional lives of children’s toys? Clever) and character. I can’t help feeling that Tron and its “sequel” (more on that later) had a great premise that was not properly executed. Or maybe I’m searching too deep in a Disney film.

Let’s look at what Tron is really about: the interactions between programs in computers. Programs in human bodies, programs with their own hopes, fears, and feelings. Imagining a computer grid as an electronic metropolis is, I have to say, pretty cool. Jeff Bridges gives a stirring voiceover introduction to Legacy:

The grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.

The idea, like Toy Story‘s idea, is mesmerizing: the emotional lives of computer programs. In the original film Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is sucked into the world of his former employer ENCOM’s mainframe. Flynn is there to find proof that his projects were stolen by rival programmer Henry Dillinger (David Warner as the Euro-villain), now head of the company.

The journey into binary looks alien but feels pretty familiar. Flynn is soon fighting alongside rebel programs persecuted by MCP (Master Control Program), a manipulative supercomputer. Echoes of MCP can be seen in I, Robot‘s VIKI and Eagle Eye‘s ARIIA. In Tron he wants to cut off access between the real world and the Grid, initiating a conflict between freedom fighters and oppressive minions. Oh, and the Rebel Alliance starships are regrouping to fight the evil Galactic Empire….this is what fantasy is made of: a journey into the underworld of Mordor only to emerge victorious. Katabasis for the computer era.

It doesn’t help that Tron looked both ahead of its time and a decade behind it. The actors are filmed in high contrast black-and-white, clad in neon-laced body-suits. They look antiquated, like characters from B-class 1960s sci-fi. The action sequences, meanwhile, can still excite. The lightcycle scene is a true moment of digital wonder, one that has not aged poorly.

The film secured its place as a science fiction class, though it did not do great business. For a $17 million dollar budget $33 million at the box office is nothing to sniff at, but it’s nowhere near the kind of business Disney is hoping to do with Legacy (the weekend numbers are in: $46.6 million domestic b.o. in three days). Somehow Tron became an identifiable brand. See the montage of Tron pop culture references to get a sense of its impact.

Video games released after the film cemented its ties to the gamer community. Brad King quickly tracks the development of the Tron game franchise at In Media Res. Most of these games do not use characters or storylines from the film, which on its own would not have guaranteed an eventual sequel. Lisberger created a technological event that triggered a series of spinoffs in other mediums, a world of discs, grid bugs, and tanks that transcended the mere 96 minutes of screen time. It is unlikely Disney would pump a rumoured $300 million into the sequel without this multi-platform heritage (and fan base) to draw upon.

So what can the guys behind Legacy offer us? Liam Lacey of the Globe concludes:

Tron: Legacy follows what did and didn’t work the first time – another weak story with sub-B-movie dialogue, partly compensated for by intensely conceived geometric design and special effects. First-time director Joseph Kosinski is a former architect; the designer Darren Gilford comes from auto design. In other words, this is a movie for your eyes only.

it certainly is. Gilford’s sets and backdrops are stylishly minimal, punctuated by strips of bright orange or blue light. Daft Punk’s score is electrifying when its electronic, integrating seamlessly with the dark visuals. The French duo’s orchestral arrangements sound curiously like Hans Zimmer’s string-and-French-horn-obsessed repetitions on the Inception score. The film looks and sounds compelling, but is an entertaining blockbuster and not a thought provoker. One can see the film as a metaphor for open source, as JustPressPlay‘s Arya Ponto does. If so, it comes off as bombastic that Kosinski would compare Clu’s destruction of ISOL’s (isomorphic algorithms) to the Holocaust. And Disney, as we all know, is like Smaug the Dragon when it comes to guarding its copyrighted treasures.

I suppose we should accept Legacy for its undeniable sheen, and disregard the film’s attempts to be epic. This is not a visionary moment in cinematic history. Last year’s Avatar (also released in December) made the most recent giant leap in on-screen technology. Legacy is following in its wake, not blazing a new circuit.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

It is hard to believe that at last, at long belated last, the Harry Potter franchise is almost over.  It may appear, especially to detractors, that “The Boy Who Lived” is really “The Boy Who Never Dies”, an indestructible brand that, even after The Deathly Hallows, will be continuously reincarnating in video games, toys, spinoff books, and maybe – dare I say it – a cinematic reboot. But Warner Brothers’ marathon undertaking of translating the novels onto the screen is about to reach the finish line.

Almost. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 opens(ed) November 19th; Part 2 will crown the saga this summer. Splitting the final book in two is partly a cynical money-making scheme, but I think it more importantly allows the story to surface.

On the run, on the road, on the final stretch of the septology.

Director David Yates knows this should be an epic film and quickly establishes a swift but comfortable pace. We move from Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, perfect) holding court in Malfoy Manor to Harry leaving Privet Drive, escorted by friends magically transformed into Potter decoys. This is a little too much Daniel Radcliffe to take at once, but the ensuing aerial/highway chase (Hagrid has his wonderful motorcycle) more than makes up for that.

A brief scene at the Weaseley’s recaps Harry’s quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes, enchanted objects containing parts of Voldemort’s soul. A briefer Weasley wedding is interrupted by news that the Ministry of Magic has fallen. Death Eaters separate Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the others, hunted and obstructed by dead ends and detours.

Hey, it's Bill Nighy! A little miscast as Rufus Scrimgeour, but still great to see him pop in.

There’s a wand-waving shoot-out in a London restaurant,  an espionage interlude at the Ministry, and a return to Godrick’s Hollow, Harry’s birthplace. While The Half-Blood Prince was a journey into Voldemort’s past, the Deathly Hallows explores  the late Dumbledore’s background. Harry encounters old friends, foes, and places, playing detective at the outskirts of the wizard community.

It is moot to mention that this film is the darkest yet. This has been repeated ad nauseam ever since The Chamber of Secrets. You only have to look at the poster of Hogwarts burning and the tag line “It Ends Here” to get an idea of where the series is going tonally. In between all the set pieces, apparating, and colourful GBAs (Great British Actors), this Potter effort is more sombre, as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra threw out the warm colours from his palette.

Amid the ruckus, Yates focuses on the three people the stories were built around. Rupert Grint (as Ron) and Emily Watson (as Hermione) are allowed out of their two-dimensional straitjackets. Grint is given more dramatic weight when his loyalty to Harry is tested by the stagnation of the Horcrux quest. Watson is better than she’s ever been, though her Hermione still does everything practical for the bickering males. That said, these actors have trouble holding so much screen time in the second act.

It is at this lonely point – the slowest part of the novel – that the film flounders, unable to balance operatic action with long stretches of inactivity in long stretches of forest. Yates rescued Potter after the mediocre Goblet of Fire, and yet he has not left a distinctive vision that Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón brought to the first three instalments.

The lack of cohesion is at the center of series’ problems. Rowling was able to brilliantly construct a complete, compelling world, making the novels truly magical. Warner’s adaptations feel increasingly slapdash and derivative.

Compare this eclectic production design to the immaculate cultural detail in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a literary adaptation imagined down to the last Eleven shoulder plate. In The Deathly Hallows the wizarding world is aesthetically patchy: the Ministry is populated by 1984 storm troopers and leaflets copied from Nazi propaganda, the Death Eaters exist in shiny black interiors, other villains are dressed and made up as punk anarchists. Rarely does this magpie job work. A remarkable exception is the superbly odd animated sequence recounting the “Deathly Hallows” legend.

Fiennes is great when you see him, good news for Part 2.

Fortunately, Yates can close as strong as he opens. I will only say that Part 1 ends at a low point, a calm before the storm similar to how The Empire Strikes Back left the story in limbo. The final twenty minutes are deftly handled, acted, and poised before the inevitable blackout, giving hope that Part 2 will be an unrelenting stampede of emotion, action, and magic. May it end well there.

Advance screening at AMC Yonge and Dundas, Toronto, November 15th.

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