Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Wizardhood (2016)

In 2016, Tim Stiefler edited all eight Harry Potter films into one single 78-minute movie. It’s a great work of editing, telling one lean story instead of seven busy ones. This is the tale of Harry versus Voldemort. That’s not to say it’s all Voldemort-centric scenes - by no means! But that’s the core, and that’s the story ’Wizardhood’ serves.

It’s edited together with incredible economy, cutting out anything that doesn’t sell the overall narrative of the series. The entire second half of 'Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone' (2001) is cut. The film sets up Harry at Hogwarts, Harry vs Snape and Harry vs Malfoy - but the whole climax, the confrontation with Quirrel and Voldemort is deemed unnecessary. I was surprised, but it works. That’s part of the joy of watching ‘Wizardhood’ - finding out how little you can get away with. ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ (2002) and ’The Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004) are over almost as soon as they begin. We don’t need all the details. We just need the core.

I'm glad to say Minerva McGonnagal still gets plenty of good bits
It sounds like it ought to be an awful rush, but it’s anything but. This isn’t hectic or bitty, nor composed of short, perfunctory scenes.  Sure, you could do it that way - a supercut including far more subplots and moments - but it would be unwatchably fast and untidy, an overwhelming experience like ‘2Everything 2Terrible 2: Tokyo Drift’ (2010). The choices here make it a far better film than it could be in less-artful hands. Each moment is given adequate time and atmosphere. This is a film to watch and enjoy. Astonishingly, it feels well-paced.

I’d recommend this to anyone interested in making films, and learning how shots and cuts tell stories. It’s a chance to see how much can be removed from familiar scenes, and how this lets them serve a different purpose and mood. Harry’s first experience with brooms is included, with a large portion of the action cut from the middle. There’s room in the movie for action, but not here. It still serves its purpose - though the students’ cheer at the end feels a little unearnt. However, cut forward 30 minutes and 6 movies, and the same students cheer for Harry in the room of requirement, in a way which seems far better merited. I’m glad the earlier celebration stayed, so the latter moment could echo it.

Just as gradual and intense a build-up. This is the midpoint of the film
Other parts keep their meaning and their mood - Dumbledore’s final moments feel just as careful and gradual and cold as they always did. There must be a lot removed from that scene, but it feels like it was always this way. It retains its power. Heck, ‘The Deathly Hallows (part 1)’ (2010) is a movie largely about drear waiting and despair, with Ron running away before eventually returning - and over the course of fifteen minutes that whole story is told here, retaining its full power. To be honest, this cutdown is my favourite telling of it.

Huge swathes are cut away. Lupin and Sirius and Rita Skeeter are gone. The Dursleys are never seen. But they’re no more ‘missing’ than Ludo Bagman. This is Harry Potter without any Deathly Hallows. They’re important to the books, but they’re details ‘Wizardhood’ can do without.

Harry grows old before your eyes. It's like watching the beards grow in 'Das Boot' (1981)
I love these books, and I delight in all that the movies added to them. Of course, they were always imperfect renderings, because it’s nigh-impossible to make a full length novel into a movie without sacrificing either the plot or the characters. It’s why I prefer ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (2016) over the full gamut of Harry Potters - it’s trying to be a movie, not a book adaptation. Since I can accept the abbreviations in the movies, it's easy to warm to this great abridgement. It takes what was good about the films - the strong central performances, the design and imagination and direction, and distils them into something strong and satisfying.

Wizardhood can currently be seen here, and I hope it remains there to be seen for a long time. A few days later it's been taken down, for copyright reasons. Understandable, but it's a good work on its own merits, so I hope you find a way to view it, within reason.

Tune in next time for a review that isn't by me that isn't of a film!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ (aka 'Robbie Rotten in LazyTown') (1999)

Glanni is rather more frightening than Robbie
Today’s film is actually a filmed-for-DVD play, ‘Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ’ (also known as ‘Robbie Rotten in LazyTown’, although ‘Shiny Crimey in LazyTown’ would be a more literal translation). It’s an Icelandic stage-musical which served as a pilot to the hit TV show ‘LazyTown’ (2004-2008).  LazyTown, if you don’t know, is the most expensive children’s TV show in history.

The play is recognisably the same characters in the same world. Local superhero Íþróttaálfurinn (Sportacus, but his Icelandic name literally means ‘sports wizard’) teaches everyone what to eat and how to exercise, and in times of crisis he runs in to save the day. He’s handsome and athletic and he can do the splits in mid-air, which from any other hero would feel like a mating display. His costume in this play owes more to Icelandic elves and folk-heroes than modern athletics, but the basic elements are the same. Here, he lives in a hot air-balloon, not an airship - and he uses it to travel to different towns (we also hear about MayhemTown and BullyTown). He speaks very LOUD in this production, and he wears a magic hat which tells him when people are in trouble.

The Policeman, the Mayor, Glanni and Miss Busybody
All the familiar characters are present - and they’re all played by humans. On TV, most of the cast are human-sized puppets, but now the children are obviously actors in their late twenties. The main impact of this is that Stephanie (the viewpoint character on TV) is just a member of the larger crowd. There are also a few characters who didn’t make the cut: gullible policeman Officer Obtuse (who doesn’t contribute much that the Mayor couldn’t), Jives (a child who raps about how vegetables cancel out pain) and a bird puppet, who doesn’t really do anything.

The character who’s most different from their TV portrayal is Glanni Glæpur. Now, Robbie Rotten is one of my favourite fictional characters, and one I identify with strongly: lazy, self-defeating, and over-keen on dressing up. Glanni Glæpur shares these attributes (and is similarly played, with excellent flair, by Stefán Karl Stefánsson), but whereas Robbie wanted peace and quiet, and so sought to expel Sportacus from town (while usurping his position), Glanni Glæpur wants cash. Robbie carries out his plans on his own, but Glanni hires a gang (of ‘ugly, boring, smelly, thievish’ folk from MayhemTown) to steal all the vegetables so he can sell can sell canned fruit (which is, of course, a great evil). When Sportacus helps the town plant new fruits and vegetables, Glanni resorts to poison. Robbie harboured a secret desire to make friends with the townfolk. Glanni Glæpur is just an evil capitalist, and it’s far less interesting.

Glanni lacks Robbie's fascinating prosthetic chin and eyebrows
Glanni impresses Stingy with his wealth, and he kisses Miss Busybody, and he impresses everybody else with a story about how he once gave the president a foot-massage. He has a seductive philosophy: ‘Never think about the future or the past. Do you know how to add and subtract? There’s nothing else you need to learn, because you know enough to count your money.’ Of course he leads everybody astray and becomes the mayor and so on.

Then there are the songs. Normally a 20-minute episode has one song, but the far greater duration of the play (which is in some ways a hinderance) allows for a lot more singing and dancing. The best of the songs were resurrected for TV. Indeed, certain songs are note-for-note the same as they appear in the series.  Glanni Glæpur’s introductory song goes to precisely the same backing as Robbie Rotten’s ‘Master of Disguise’, and ‘Bing Bang Dingalingaling’ is obviously the same song and instrumentation as ‘Bing Bang Diggiriggidong’. Others are still works in progress. An early version of ‘Gizmo Guy’ pops up, but it lacks finesse.

Stephanie and Trixie sing of their enduring friendship after escaping jail
It’s an enjoyable enough 95 minutes, but it doesn’t hold a candle to such LazyTown classics as ‘Rottenbeard’ or ‘The Greatest Gift’. It’s easy to love Sportacus and Robbie on TV, but at this early point (and with too much stage time) they’re too authoritarian and too criminal respectively. The fact that it’s obviously a filmed stage-play, but without a live audience, leaves it feeling like there ought to be a laugh track. The TV series ups the stylisation, and shoots single-camera, but the compromise in ‘Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ’ leaves you feeling that something is missing.

You can see the musical on Youtube, and you can donate to Stefán Karl (Glanni/Robbie) here - he’s currently undergoing therapy for pancreatic cancer and there’s a movement afoot to raise money to support him and his family through the process. You can see some of his finest work in meme form here and here and here and here because this is 2016.

P.S. I almost forgot the most important thing, which is that Icelandic sounds great. It's a very similar sound to the German accents that I find so satisfying. Good work Iceland!

Monday, 18 January 2016

One Direction: This Is Us (2013)

One of my lodgers is a big fan of One Direction.  At first, she got into them ironically - this is the age of memes, so this is one of the most comfortable ways to enjoy low-brow art - but when her aunt got her concert tickets, and she went to see them perform, she was won over entirely.  You see, there’s something magical about Harry Styles.

Tea, in our house, is drunk from One Directon mugs.  I had to learn the basics of One Direction so the three of us could play ‘One Direction: The Board Game’, some of which requires rudimentary trivia knowledge.  Thus, I know the boys’ names and former careers, and can name the band’s first perfume.  My lodger's fiancée, who happens to be my other lodger, made her another One Direction game - a 1D version of Munchkin, that modern classic.  With almost 180 hand-designed cards, playing ingeniously on the band's lyrics and antics, it's an astonishing creation, a labour of love.

This Christmas my lodgers gave me the unauthorised biography of Zayn Malik, the handsome bad-boy of the group, the traitor.  This is not a book I ever desired, but I’ve been reading it, picking up the story of their X-Factor journey.  It’s a pretty poor biography, but not the worst I’ve read* - evidently it was written as a catch-all One Direction book, with a few tweaks to increase the mentions of Zayn, released to tie in with his surprise resignation.  An awful lot of it is statistics and speculation on what band-members were surely or probably thinking or feeling at any given moment.  I suspect that Zayn was the most talented of the five band-members, and I’ll be interested to read a more human biography of him in a decade or two, when we’re allowed to know the truth.

Harry Styles and Niall Horan
I’ve become rather intrigued with One Direction.  I’ve ended up knowing about as much as one could about a band without listening to any of their records.  I’m especially interested to see the results of their hiatus (announced in August 2015, and in force since October).  The five boys all entered ‘The X-Factor’ aiming for solo careers, so we’ll find out what happens when they get what they wanted.

 Harry has the style and charisma to prosper, regardless of his next move - and Zayn, who quit first, matches him for handsomeness and prospects.  Niall is beloved by his native Ireland, but I worry for the fate of Louis and Liam.  They can’t all become superstars in their own right.  This might yet prove to be a band with four Ringos.  I expect some of them to follow the band’s aesthetic of confident, glossy pop-rock with hint of autotune - a popular sound which has served them well.

But will any of them do something interesting?  One Direction, though sold as a wonderful party, has always been a very heavily managed band.  Will Zayn give us something more personal and human?  Will we get past the plastic packaging, to a raw wound?

For comparison: The Beach Boys are the other band that I really care about (out of proportion with my love of their music, which is sometimes great but mainly not).  Brian Wilson escaped their dominating management, and recorded some of his most honest (and alarmingly melancholy) works as a soloist, but then fell under the sway of an even more oppressive producer (and for the rest of that story, I’d recommend watching 2014’s ‘Love and Mercy’).  His brother Dennis Wilson produced his own solo album, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ in 1977 and it was far better than anything the Beach Boys would have dared release at the time.  Carl Wilson had a good voice, but nothing to say, and Mike Love never got around to releasing his ‘Mike Love Not War’.  It wouldn't have lived up to the promise of its title.

So perhaps my real question is: will we finally find out which of the One Direction boys are sad, and in trouble?  It feels a vulgar, voyeuristic sort of question, but sometimes I want some truth in my music.  I would like to feel something.  Sometimes I feel very sad, and if these world-famous recording artists could give me something to hold onto, something to feel with, and about, perhaps that would be good for me, and good for them too.  They have so much talent, and this is their chance to say something real.

One Direction's dad.
So, ‘One Direction: This is Us’ is the band’s 2013 film.  It’s directed by Morgan Spurlock, best known for ‘Super Size Me’ (2004) which I haven’t seen, and ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' (2011), which I really enjoyed.  On the basis of that, I had high hopes for ‘This is Us’.  It’s certainly engaging, a well-told story, and it keeps the attention (even in the extended fan cut).

It’s fun, it’s clean, it contains no surprises and no great drama.  The two most dramatic events in One Direction’s history - Zayn Malik’s surprise resignation, and their decision to go on semi-permanent ‘hiatus’, happened after this film had been made.  This is a movie about some nice boys for whom things get better and better.  It's boringly pleasant.  There’s a great story to be told about One Direction, but it won’t be told for another decade or two.  When the contracts are ended, and everyone can look back and be honest, then their happiness will seem more sincere.  They'll be allowed to be themselves.  I'm sure that's what they were doing here - but only within permissible confines, and edited in accordance with their management's wishes.  This is their image.

It’s a film with two ambitions, and I think it fulfils them both.  First, it’s intended to make money (which is also the primary purpose of One Direction).  Secondly, and more generously, I think this was an attempt to give something, some kind words, back to the fans.  There are numerous stories from the band about how the fans love them, how the fans care, and write to them, and about them, and how they wish they could talk to every fan individually to return that warmth and affection.  I think the film is an attempt to do just that.  It’s not the most personal medium, but on this occasion it succeeds to the extent that it can.  So, that’s nice.

P.S. If you're following the asterisk to find out the actual worst biography I've read, that's probably 'Michael Faraday: Spiritual Dynamo', a charming and terrible work.  It tried to relate all of Faraday's discoveries to his Christian faith, but it didn't have any quotes from him to back this up, so it spent a lot of time saying certain things were probably or surely or maybe inspired by it - I suspect the author chose their title before they did any research, and then realised they were working on a bit of a false premise.  It also tried to attribute a lot of other people's inventions to him, on the basis that he was in the same city at the right time, and must have been involved.  It also tried to disguise lists of facts as crowd-scene conversations.  I don't have the book now, but it had an awful lot of 'I say, said a man outside Michael Faraday's House, I've heard Michael Faraday is inventing such and such a machine.  Gosh, said a woman, I additionally heard that these are some specifications of it.  If that's so, evinced a young paper-boy, then I'm sure it will have sold between four and five thousand examples within an eighteen month period'-style dialogue, which was at once risible and delightful.  'Zayn: A New Direction' was not a million miles from this style.