Thursday, 21 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

I intend to write a theological analysis on both parts of Deathly Hallows, but for now I will confine my comments to what I consider to be the inferior half of Deathly Hallows. Keep in mind that I have not read any of the books.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (DH2) is a well-crafted film. The acting, directing, dialogue, score and cinematography are all very good. DH2 is one of the darkest films I have ever seen (the feeling of constant dread is palpable), which is appropriate for the final epic-like instalment of the series. The atmosphere in Harry Potter (HP) films is one of my favourite things about the series and it is well done again here. I also loved seeing all those great British actors altogether one last time. As a final film (and a part 2), it was unnecessary to establish background or characters. By now, we had better know the story and we have already come to know and love the characters. In general, I enjoyed watching DH2 and found myself engaged from start to finish. Nevertheless (you were forewarned this time), despite the rave reviews from major critics, DH2 doesn’t even rank in my top three HP films, let alone have a chance to get into my favourite films of the year.

What didn’t I like? The bottom line is that the final HP film felt incredibly anticlimactic to me. To start with, we had the continued search for, and destruction of, the horcruxes. In DH1, this task seemed virtually impossible and was begun only with tremendous effort. In DH2, the horcruxes are found and destroyed with relative ease (just enough effort to keep the 3D action humming – and NO, I CERTAINLY DID NOT WATCH IT IN 3D and neither did almost half of those who had a choice, which is a hopeful sign for the future). Even the snake was killed with minimal and predictable effort. As for the great revelations I was expecting in DH2, the final unveiling of all the mysteries, there was very little to excite me. The moving scene of Snape’s death followed by Harry’s magical glimpse into Snape’s past were the highlight of the film for me (not least because I have always found Snape to be the most fascinating character in the HP films) but revealed little I had not already guessed from watching the previous seven films. The biggest revelation was discovering that Harry himself was one of the horcruxes, but that was also hinted at in previous films (we knew there was some kind of special link between Voldemort and Harry). And then there was the disappointment of the big final battle. The last instalment of HP is largely a battle film – how original! We have giants and spiders and giant spiders and many other strange creatures, and of course the endless magic - yawn. I have always found real magic tedious because it follows no rules that make any sense to me. That is primarily what has kept me from reading the HP books. DH2 had far too much magic for my liking (then again, all of the HP films have too much magic for my liking). But at least the battle scenes were not as long as those in The Return of the King.

So that’s what I didn’t like. Having noted my problems with DH2, I must repeat that it is a good film and I did enjoy most of it. I particularly appreciated the culmination of Harry’s character development which leads him to rescue, at great risk, two of his “enemies” and eventually to offer his own life to save his friends and the world. More discussion on this will follow in my theological reflection, but the relationship between Harry and Voldemort and the fight between them was certainly fascinating to watch, even if the ‘resurrection’ was not explained (a major oversight by the film’s writer). The idea of Harry as a role model for young people today is definitely worth promoting, even if Rowling and the filmmakers can’t find a way to avoid killing off the ultimate baddie (the embodiment of pure evil?) once again. There always needs to be one great evil to destroy so the world can be saved. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

Stay tuned for my theological analysis of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the meantime, DH2, like DH1, gets ***+, though I liked DH1 more and neither of them touch HP3, by far the best of the eight films. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Tree of Life

There are some films that, even if you know virtually nothing about them, you know before the opening scene that you are going to be giving it four stars. I, at least, have had that experience every few years. So let’s get this out of the way before I start my review. The Tree of Life was always going to get four stars from me, no matter what. This will strike some people as illogical at best, utterly idiotic and nonsensical at worst. I understand. And I can’t really explain how I knew The Tree of Life was going to get four stars based on seeing only a few seconds of a preview and hearing a few very brief comments from Gareth. But I did know. I even knew that the obviously elevated expectations I had for the film would have no impact on my enjoyment of it. I just knew. It’s similar to knowing that if I ever get to see the Taj Mahal in person, it will take my breath away. Or to knowing that, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about them, no one could ever talk me into watching a Transformers film.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a profound work of art unlike almost any other. It did remind me immediately of Malick’s last two films (the great anti-war film The Thin Red Line and the fascinating The New World), and of course of Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of the recent Enter the Void, but The Tree of Life goes well beyond these films in its audacity: it boldly goes where no one has gone before, combining theology and science and the meaning of human existence into a stunning visual and music-filled poem. This achievement alone is worthy of four stars.

I have said enough for those who haven’t seen the film: unless you require action or at least a plot, go watch it and then come back. Okay, you’re back, so now you know the film, which has very little by way of plot, is basically about Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult and by Hunter McCracken as a child). Jack is a late middle-aged architect surrounded by the grandeur of the 21st century’s finest architectural achievements. But it all appears cold and lifeless. As in 2001, humans have advanced to great heights, but lost their passion for life and wonder. All Jack sees out of the windows that surround him is greed. Something (a search for passion and wonder?) drives him to reflect back on his childhood, to the days of growing up in small-town Texas with a father (Brad Pitt) who is both loving and tyrannical (a God of compassion and punishment?) and a mother who is gentle and forgiving. The younger Jack is in those confusing years of adolescence when he both hates and adores his father, when he is jealous of his brothers and capable of both cruelty and kindness towards them, when the world is full of wonder and endless questions but also of confusion and despair. I suspect there are many of us who can relate to this. In poetic form, The Tree of Life captures this period of life magnificently, with the help of an impeccable performance by the young McCracken and one of Pitt’s very best performances.

The above paragraph makes The Tree of Life sound like a drama about family life. Do not be fooled, for it is much more than that. This is a film with numerous gorgeous scenes of space and a riveting scene involving dinosaurs. It’s so slow-moving that it barely moves at all and yet it covers the entire history of life, from the Big Bang to the day when we all meet again on some distant shore. And it does so from a uniquely religious (Christian?) viewpoint. It is a film about overcoming our natural tendencies and making grace central, about seeing life as responding to the needs of people around us rather than to our own, about what it means to be human and how we are all in it together. At least that’s what I saw. But since it’s a poem, it can surely be interpreted in many different ways.

I haven’t read many reviews of this film, but I have yet to see a reference to the Book of Job, which surprises me, since it is referenced at various points in The Tree of Life. My own interpretation is that, like the Book of Job, The Tree of Life is about asking why the world is such a confusing place, a place where the wonder and beauty of life are always forced to lie beside suffering, pain and tragedy and receiving the answer that God’s beautiful and meaningful creation is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. Perhaps the best thing about The Tree of Life is that it demands discussion. This is a film you will be thinking about and talking about for a long time because it will touch the very core of your soul. Yet another reason that it must get ****. My mug is up and its contents sublime. Don’t miss it on the big screen, if you can help it.