Thursday, November 25, 2010

Harry Potter, the Deathly Hallows, and the mystery of the suspicious Entertainment Weekly review

Have you seen Liza Schwarzbaum's review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Part 1? I don't know the writer, but after having watched the underwhelming movie (and noting how the narrative effectively stops dead once Harry, Hermione, and Ron go camping), I returned to Schwarzbaum's reaction with renewed interest. The writing is so vague, so smitten, and so reverent, it left me wondering if a fix was on:

"We all know the end is near. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1 breaks the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's epic modern literary classic into two movies, and haunting every frame of this assured and beautiful first half is the knowledge that soon, in 2011, the screen journey will be over. I don't know which had the greater effect: my real melancholy at the thought of looming finality, or the elegance of this necessarily dark and serious penultimate film, in which characters/actors we have watched since childhood are now resourceful young adults. But I do know I felt a swell of love and awe wash over me from the very first wickedly creepy scene until the profoundly moving last one. Under the direction of David Yates — in Goldilocks terms, he's Just Right, having gently guided the series to more consistent excellence in pace and tone with the last two installments — Part 1 is the most cinematically rewarding chapter yet.

What a marvel it is, this Harry Potter movie business! What a spell the experience casts, now that every detail is so familiar to us, from the ghostly sound of the signature minor-key musical theme to the sight of Voldemort's hideous noseless face! All the grand British thespians who bring Rowling's convocation of wizardly characters to life, from Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton to Michael Gambon and Robbie Coltrane, do so with utterly serious gusto. As for Hogwarts besties Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, we've lived side by side for so long with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint that their (re)appearance carries honest emotional weight: We've known them since they were kids! [snarky italics added]"

Well, yes, Deathly Hallows trots out the usual gang of top-notch British actors, and it has its occasional fun scene, but the playfulness of the love potions in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince has now been replaced with much concern over wands, specifically which wands will be used to fight that last BIG BATTLE (ZAP!) between Voldemort and Harry in Part 2 due to be released on July 15, 2011. Voldemort wants a super nuclear mega-wand with big black bulges for his side of that special effects extravaganza. Harry gets his broken. Much heavy duty wand activity is going down in this film.

Still, can one respectfully ask if this is a review or further promotional copy? I looked around the Entertainment Weekly editorial page and found that it is owned by Time Inc. Then a bit of internet research led me to this Time Warner webpage, where one learns that the Harry franchise and this magazine are owned by the same company. Hmmm.

Perhaps, there wasn't marketing pressure on Schwarzbaum to love this film. Perhaps she's doing all of the swooning on her own, but I found The Deathly Hallows oddly Twilight-esque once the Emma, Harry, and Ron threesome start hanging out in one blank, beautiful, gloriously-lit landscape after the next. A romantic triangle? Much nature imagery? Emma Watson even appears to adopt the sulky mien of Kristen Stewart. Given that the filmmakers need to find some of the few places on earth free of the omnipresent marketing of recent Harry Potter product, I suppose that scenes of sunset-enhanced nature would do the trick (one can see the same pretty dead tree behind them in various scenes). Anyway, back to EW's review:

"In The Deathly Hallows, of course, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are deep in their struggle toward adulthood, truly on their own and unprotected, except by one another. (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is nowhere to be seen this time.) The final showdown between the Chosen One (Harry) and the Dark Lord (Voldemort, embodied with chilling, hairless silkiness by Ralph Fiennes) is still to come. Meanwhile, the schoolmates are on a continued mission to find and destroy the Horcruxes, those magical bits of his black soul that Voldemort has hidden in order to hang on to immortality. The world is an anxious, paranoid place, what with the Dark Lord's Death Eaters on the loose. The look of the movie is apocalyptically desolate too — when it's not baroquely sepulchral, as it is in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic. An early scene at Voldemort's dinner table, surrounded by his senior Death Eaters, is terrifying."

The Voldemort dinner scene mostly boils down to some PG-13 torture of a minor Hogwarts teacher and one CGI snake attacking the camera. I actually preferred the Ministry of Magic Brazil-esque paranoid sequence when Harry, Hermione, and Ron assume the disguises of middle-aged bureaucrats to infiltrate the proceedings (although I find it ironic that a movie with such a totalitarian hold over the media threatens its characters with a fascist takeover). Still, Schwarzbaum fails to mention that an excess of "apocalyptically desolate" imagery can be a drag after, say, four or five, or six or seven movies in a row. I always wonder if Rowling feels obliged to include all of this requisite gloomy mise en scene as a way to counterbalance the basic silliness of the magic. As the threesome face down various terrorist-wand attacks, I found myself wondering--as the franchise feeds off of so much nostalgia and teenage brand-identification, does anyone mind how repetitive the franchise has become? Does it bother anyone that J. K. Rowling now has her threesome hunt around for a sword, a locket, a mystical symbol, etc., just like the young characters do in Sucker Punch, The Hobbit, not to mention the innumerable other kiddie-quest flicks already released? At one point, Harry finds a much needed magic sword in a frozen pond, and these lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to mind:

"King Arthur: I am your king.

Peasant Woman: Well, I didn't vote for you.

King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.

Peasant Woman: Well, how'd you become king, then?

[Angelic music plays... ]

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Dennis the Peasant: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet!

Dennis the Peasant: You can't expect to wield supreme power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!"

Anyway, back to Schwarzbaum's gushing:

"All this takes a toll on Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Or maybe, as Rowling so astutely weaves into her books, it's the not-so-magically dispelled fears, doubts, and longings of true adulthood that weigh the trio down. Either way, Yates, working with cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Girl With a Pearl Earring), keeps the picture poised between the gaping future (i.e., Harry's scheduled showdown with Voldemort) and the groping present, as the three friends test their adult support of one another. In one of the movie's sweetest wordless moments, Harry comforts Hermione. Ron has stormed off after a fight with Harry, Hermione is sad and troubled, and Harry spontaneously leads his dear friend in a dance. The scene isn't in the book; it's the rare deviation of an addition to the sacred text, rather than an unavoidable cut made for Muggle-driven movie purposes. Yet the gesture is so tender, and such a welcome breath of warmth in such a dark time, that the grace note demonstrates an integrity I feel sure Rowling would applaud. This is who Harry Potter has grown up to be: a young man strong enough to love his friends (including dear, devoted Dobby the house elf; O Dobby!), clever enough to outwit his foes, and brave enough to face his future. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1 also bravely faces the future, slipping with expert ease among the thrilling mass of complications (and complicated set pieces) that Rowling throws fans in the final sprint, then guiding the faithful to the fate that awaits everyone in this world, the moment called The End. A-"

After a review like that, what is the minus for? I imagine Rowling did applaud that sweet "tender" moment because she produced the movie. For this reviewer, Potter's little dance briefly alleviated the tedium of the entire second half of the film, but I wouldn't want to interfere with the nostalgia of the "faithful" as they all "bravely face" the next big Warners Brothers' cash-in this summer. I, for one, will be glad when all of this expertly marketed Horcrux huggermuggery is over.

23 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

"After a review like that, what is the minus for?"

A very fair question. Whether there was any pressure -- to bow to the Time Warner machine or to the Harry Potter-loving masses that, no doubt, read EW -- I don't know. But Schwarzbaum's review sure reads like the response of someone who had already decided what she wanted to feel going in. I'm not saying that's accurate; that's just how it reads. For a praiseworthy review that seems a little more, shall we say, broad-minded, see Craig's.

Later today, I hope to be able to assemble my Harry Potter review out of the various pages where I've been scribbling it out in pieces over the past week as time has allowed.

Hokahey said...

I feel the same way that you and Jason do about this non-movie. Funny that you should allude to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When you have the three Deathly Hallows cropping up as a plot element - as if the horcruxes are not enough - I can't help but think of the line from Life of Brian when Brian is trying to sound like a soothsayer. John Cleese says disgustedly, "He's making it up as he goes along." That's how I've always felt about Rowling's plot gimmicks.

MovieMan0283 said...

Never got into the whole Potter phenomenon, and still have no interest in it. So that's where I'm coming from.

As for Schwarzbaum, Jason's right but I don't think this is a matter of the fix being in - or rather I think she fixed herself. For years now (think Richard Corliss' about-face on blockbusters, or the overwhelmingly positive response to King Kong) many critics have been dumbing themselves down. They're afraid to grow irrelevant and out-of-touch and as their profession becomes an endangered species, who can blame them? They desperately want to drink the kool-aid.

I'm not saying Schwarzbaum didn't enjoy the film, but it seems much like my enjoyment of The Phantom Menace when I was 15 - i.e. I'm GOING to like this movie, damnit (even if I have to see it 11 times to prove to myself that I liked it)! And then I never ended up buying that one on DVD, when all was said and done.

Just one more nail in the critical Establishment's coffin.

Craig said...

I'm having a hell of a time submitting a comment, not sure if I'm taking too long or the comment is too long or what. Trying again, and I apologize if you're seeing about four or five versions of this, because I'm not seeing any....

Basically, I wrote that EW has a long history of combining big suck-up cover pieces with brutal takedowns from their critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum. So while Schwarzbaum is far from my favorite critic -- and her review of Deathly Hallows, plainly, stinks -- I've never doubted her sincerity. I think she truly loves the movie. Stephanie Zacharek has genuinely loved the Potter movies too, and her review is good film criticism. (Part 1 of 2....)

Craig said...

I'm fine with not liking these films, but I'm baffled by the suggestion that there's something underhanded (or immature) behind a positive response. The studio marketing behind the Potter films may be cynical but the filmmaking clearly isn't: If it were, Chris Columbus would still be running things. (As for Rowling, my understanding is she's always kept herself out of the process.) Much as I hate to quote Glenn Kenny's patented non-review, I think he's right about one thing: these movies (or at least the last three or four) have been honorable efforts to capture the enjoyment of the novels.

Unsurprisingly, the effort doesn't work for everyone (including plenty of critics, the response to Deathly Hallows being generally positive but also fairly measured, Schwarzbaum being more of an exception than the rule). But if you're looking for an example of pure cynicism, think Indiana Jones. Or a comparison to the '76 Eagles -- also Indiana Jones.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jason,

I agree that Craig's review is more broad-minded. I've heard that Entertainment Weekly has given grades like a B- to Potter films in the past, so perhaps Schwarzbaum meant what she wrote, but the review still seems weirdly hagiographic. It seems that one of the problems with a franchise is that one can scarcely review the movie itself. One can only look at it in the context of all the others, in which case one is more likely to view as a return to hanging out with old friends.

Thanks, Hokahey,

I've heard that Rowllngs tends to go for deus ex machina devices like the cloak of invisibility to make the next plot point viable. That's the main reason why I dislike so much magic--there's no sense of friction in getting whatever you want, hence the need for desolate gloom to add oomph.

Thanks, Movieman,

You may well be right. In the midst of 8 pages of the same issue of Entertainment Weekly that promote the Potter film (including its position as Number 1 in the Must List), an actual review might feel a bit odd if it doesn't fall in line. I find it weird how EW will promote a film to the heavens and then pan it in the next issue. No one needs to be burdened by that weird dissociation this time.

Thanks, Craig. Perhaps I'm wrong about Schwarzbaum's review, and I'm being unfair in thinking something is rigged. My take on this matter also reflects my growing disenchantment with Entertainment Weekly. I used to look forward to reading it every week, but now it seems like so much glad-handing promotional gossip that revels in its shallow glib affirmation of all things corporate (with naked celebrities on the cover). It's like watching that "magazine" of stuff before a movie at the Regal Cineplex. There's something robotic and manipulative about its enthusiasms.

Craig said...

I gave up on EW years ago, and I wasn't a big fan of Schwarzbaum even then. Gleiberman is by far the better writer (also crazier, more unpredictable). From the looks of it her prose has degenerated considerably. Either that, or she has a young daughter who wrote that piece under her mom's name.

I like your idea here of breaking down a piece of criticism paragraph by paragraph. Hope you do it again.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Craig. I don't, however, have an opinion about the rest of Schwarzbaum's work, having never paid much attention to specific writers of the magazine except for Mark Harris, and that's mostly due to his Pictures at a Revolution. This one Harry Potter review in the context of the rest of Entertainment Weekly's highly approving editorial slant just struck me as questionable.

MovieMan0283 said...

I think the best thing Entertainment Weekly ever did was produce a "100 greatest films" special issue/book that included both Last of the Mohicans and Celine and Julie Go Boating. And that was written by Ty Burr.

FilmDr said...

I agree. I still consult with that book in the midst of teaching film.

Craig said...

Just noticed that Lisa Schwarzbaum gave "Love and other Drugs" a C+ following EW's ballyhooed nekkid cover spread. Not a good critic, but evidently not a suck-up.

FilmDr said...

Good point, Craig (although I still don't want to generalize about the rest of Schwarzbaum's work). Damn straight Love and Other Drugs deserves a C+. That film left me extra irritated because of the way it besmirches the (otherwise mostly good) careers of its fine leads. I plan on eventually posting something about the movie called "Love and Other Drugs and other reasons to throw a brick at the screen."

I still wonder, though, what it is like to write a review of a film owned by the parent company that also owns the magazine one writes for, and to write for a publication that clearly has a major investment in promoting the said movie. It must create strange pressures on reviewer and editor alike.

Jason Bellamy said...

See ... but I saw that cover and thought, "Well, sure, now that EW has done it's naked cover, why not ...?" I mean, truly, which is more likely to have an effect on the movie's box office: two young sexy stars naked (with an article talking about how much they have their clothes off in the movie), or a C+ review?

I'm not arguing here that Schwarzbaum is being less than perfectly fair and truthful in her review. I'm just saying that it would be a pretty good time for a good ol' C+ review, given the previous cover story.

FilmDr said...

Jason,

I agree. I disliked the way the publicizing of Love and Other Drugs emphasized celebrity nudity instead of focusing on what the movie ultimately concerns--Parkinson's Disease. The trailer makes no mention of the disease. I found myself walking out of the cineplex with cognitive dissonance. What was the film that they were advertising? The movie struck me more as a compendium of nods to different audiences--guys who like raunch, ladies who like romantic comedies, those who weep at Lifetime melodramas, those interested in pharmaceutical reps, and so on. Otherwise, the movie has no reality and no soul. It's all marketing, with Hathaway and Gyllenhaal's charms being the most exploited.

Craig said...

I'm not arguing here that Schwarzbaum is being less than perfectly fair and truthful in her review. I'm just saying that it would be a pretty good time for a good ol' C+ review, given the previous cover story.

So, now we've moved from suggesting a critic isn't being fair and truthful with a positive review on a heavily hyped movie, to her not being fair and truthful with a negative review on a heavily hyped movie....What?

I mean, truly, which is more likely to have an effect on the movie's box office: two young sexy stars naked (with an article talking about how much they have their clothes off in the movie), or a C+ review?

Given its lukewarm extended opening weekend, I'd say neither. Regardless, EW's critics have both talked about the complete lack of editorial pressure to contribute to a movie's hype. (And I'm too lazy to provide a link right now, but off the top of my head I believe there's a rockcritics.com interview with Owen Gleiberman where he says as much.) Criticizing the hype itself is more than valid (that's why I canceled my subscription over a decade ago), but from what I gather EW's hands-off policy toward its film criticism is relatively admirable -- certainly when compared to Charles Taylor's story about a fellow newspaper critic who got yelled at by his editor for panning "Men in Black II." (Again, Google it, and you'll find it.)

Craig said...

Addendum: This discussion reminds me of when Siskel & Ebert & the Movies was gobbled up by Disney: speculations of favoritism abounded, including a funny political cartoon of Gene and Roger giving the thumbs'-up sign, wearing mouse ears. Their ratings of Disney movies before and after might make for a nifty quantitative thesis, but the anecdotal evidence of my memory recalls no sudden bias in favor of their films. As I recall, maintaining their journalistic integrity was part of the bargain.

Incidentally, who's spreading that rumor that Lisa Schwarzbaum and I are dating? Completely unfounded!

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Jason Bellamy said...

So, now we've moved from suggesting a critic isn't being fair and truthful with a positive review on a heavily hyped movie, to her not being fair and truthful with a negative review on a heavily hyped movie....What?

Craig: See, all I'm trying to do is refute the suggestion that the C+ review proves that Schwarzbaum is "not a suck-up." At the same time, I'm trying to avoid implying charging Schwarzbaum as being otherwise disingenuous -- giving a C+ review as a critical pose to say "see, I'm not a suck up!" All I'm saying is that it could be that. It could be that normally Schwarzbaum feels incredible pressure to churn out positive reviews about certain stars, perhaps with certain agents, and so it could be that she felt this was a great time to appear to be unbiased by offering an assessment of "average" one week after the EW cover provided the best promotional coverage the movie's marketing agents could hope for by showing Jake and Anne naked on the cover. It would be the equivalent of Bill O'Reilly interviewing George W. Bush and saying, "Face it, Mr. President, 'misunderestimated' isn't a word!" -- giving the appearance of being a tough interviewer on an issue that's of little impact. Following me?

Having said all of this: I'm more than comfortable with the idea that EW is wonderful about giving its critics the freedom to write about whatever the want, say whatever they want to say. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm not that cynical. I'm just proposing that the C+ review doesn't necessarily tell us anything about whether Schwarzbaum is or isn't a "suck up." Because it could be that the movie is an absolute F and C+ was the highest she felt she could go without being a blatant Armond-on-Spielberg-esque "suck up."

You bastard!*

* I thought I'd make it personal. :)

FilmDr said...

Gentlemen! Keep it civil.

I feel bad now for insinuating anything about Schwarzbaum. Maybe I was wrong. I don't know anymore. These long comment strings wear me out.

At the moment, I would like to go see Burlesque.

Jason Bellamy said...

At the moment, I would like to go see Burlesque.

FilmDoc: Keep it civil!

Craig said...

We're through the looking glass now, people....

(ominous strings)

Craig said...

Aw, FilmDr, did you delete your "HAL" comment? It was the perfect capper!

I can't speak for Jason (oh, who am I kidding: yes, I can), but we genuinely enjoyed this thread. Thanks for indulging us.

FilmDr said...

My pleasure, Craig.