Thursday, July 21, 2011


In a Yale University Introduction to Psychology lecture posted to YouTube in 2008, Dean Peter Salovey delivered a discussion of what love is. He declared that sexual attraction, commitment to continuation of a relationship, and intimacy (sharing of secrets) were the three components that made up love. This observation makes Harry Potter look like the perfect long-term relationship; it’s sexiness and teenage romantic tension is oft-remarked upon, the films have been released with cosy regularity over the course of ten years (yes, we’ve survived the seven year itch) and by god have we embedded our innermost desires in it’s characters. With HP 7.2 comes the demise of a cultural affair, a lover sweetly passing on in your arms after ten years of perfect romance.

So where were we at the end of Part 1?

The wizarding world is in a state of civil unrest. All government and prestigious bodies like banks and schools have been internally penetrated by a wicked and omnipresent mob known as the Death Eaters. Their leader Voldemort has almost reached a position of certainty whereupon he can coronate himself publicly, but has one last task: to slay Harry Potter, a young man that prophecy says stands between him and immortality.  Voldemort has a weakness: he has broken his soul into pieces and placed them in various magical objects for safe-keeping (these are Horcruxes). Meanwhile, Harry, Ron and Hermione must hunt and destroy each Horcrux, whilst outlawed and time pressured, so that Voldemort can be definitively assassinated.

This is a pleasingly rich political situation that has clear parallels in the real history of social, criminal and political crises. That Harry would save the world from a magical foe like a rampaging dragon is surely not as fascinating as his rebellion against a powerful despot, propagandist, mob boss and blackmailer whose rise to power has been carefully orchestrated over several years. This is a more credible conclusion as unlike magic, rebellion, tyranny and massacre are more likely to genuinely concern us than potions or giants. Rowling has built up this world over more than a decade, defining its rules, spells, the players, locations. The system is familiar. Now, deservedly, she is moving the major pieces over the board, changing the game with long-dormant characters, rules, and big revelations. The equilibrium we worked hard to understand is being ruptured like any civilisation in flux.

Of course, the more powerful and adult this world becomes, the harder it is to distinguish its quality from fan satisfaction. The blockbuster fantasy genre has for a long time struggled with the double-edged ‘Sword of Profundity’. If you try to appease fans by assuming knowledge and over-quoting, you risk losing your ‘walk-by’ trade. On the other hand, too much explanation spoils it for the fans. As always, the more seriously you try to take yourself, the harder it is for newcomers to get involved. Lucky for some, there is no illusion here that newcomers are the target audience. Unlike the recent spate of comic-based films, the millions of people who’ve read the books hardly add up to a niche market. 

Whilst performances from Grint, Watson and Radcliffe are about as solid as they are going to get, this is Alan Rickman’s film. He is equipped with incredibly complex material and via flashback montage provides a gut-wrenchingly moving mini-history of the Severus Snape character. This sequence perfectly combines revelation, romance and is paced so as to be pleasantly overwhelming. No, I didn’t cry in this scene. The tween beside me holding hands with her blonde-tipped boyfriend stopped throwing popcorn and cried. I, however, wept.

Of course, this is a film in which a number of favourite characters do die, yet director Yates applies a merciful, stylised glaze over these, as there are many. Those who have seen previous Potter films will notice a few differences in the musical score, which has happily abandoned the childish theme melody from previous features. Instead the orchestra plays at a level just below consciousness, enhancing emotive sequences but never used as an emotive cue. HP7.2 is also bloody exciting! The action sequences are well timed, peppered with humour, and colourfully display all of the magical weapons and creatures in the arsenal. Ralph Fiennes heightens the battles brilliantly as You-Know-Who, providing a classical yet potent portrait of unpredictable, guttural villainy. Keep your eyes peeled for a scene in which his laughter and a strange embrace give him a further manic edge.

This movie always had to be an exercise in nostalgia to some extent. What surprised me was how tastefully this was done. Favourite characters all made short appearances, but never out of a well-structured context, avoiding that ‘reunion’ feeling. Hogwarts is revisited, a few lovely in-jokes about Slytherin House are made and familiar settings from previous battles and struggles are returned to. Long-awaited romances blossom neatly. The epilogue (“19 years later”) serves to get over the melancholic hump once the action scenes are over, and establishes the legacy that long-gone characters have left upon the survivors. Having said that, the ‘where are they now’ facial ageing and potbellying plus abundant Hogwarts-alumni offspring are typical fan-freebie material. Something in me feels surprised that parts of it weren’t after the credits, as a wink to those who sat in their spilled popcorn for an extra fifteen minutes with lightning bolts drawn on their foreheads in pen.

This will no doubt be an important film for those fans who are more dedicated to the series than I. It has to be pointed out that a certain alignment of age has occurred between Rowling’s readers and her characters which no doubt explains a large part of her success. I’m certainly not alone in remembering the night of my eleventh birthday, when I waited for my owl-delivered invitation to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It never did come, but perhaps that shared disappointment only drove us deeper into the fiction.

And what now for the Potter franchise? It’s stars are finally free to go about the uphill battle of proving their worth as ‘real and versatile’ actors. J. K. Rowling is working on an interactive website called Pottermore so that those who just can’t get enough will be let down more gently. No doubt this is a kind of methadone treatment for Harry Potter narrative addiction. Of course, the unsatisfying mirage of fan fiction will continue on as strongly as ever. The question to ask now is where will the next mega-franchise come from? And more importantly, could it ever be as wholesome, encourage reading, appeal over time, be as family-friendly or well orchestrated as the Harry Potter phenomenon? Now that the great Harry Potter love affair is over, all we can hope for is that it’s memory, resurrection stone or none, will live on forever, “in there”. (I’m pointing at your hearts, readers).

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Anna (Kristen Wiig), is a miserable thirty-something woman who despite her wit, ingenuity and plain likeableness can’t seem to get anywhere in life. Her lifelong best bud Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting hitched and has chosen Anna to be Maid of Honour. The celebrations turn from joyous to sour after Anna meets Lillian’s friend Helen (Rose Byrne), a model best friend and her competition as BFF. The girls compete to disastrous effect and all the while, Anna is losing her grip on her relationships with those surrounding her.

Writing this review I feel I am under some nameless obligation to address the question that this film has raised in every water-cooler synopsis I’ve heard so far:

Is Bridesmaids indicative of a new genre of fem-centric gross-out movies? Is this the dawn of woman’s equality in the hallowed land of fart noises, projectile vomit and horrific accidents that send Aunty Mable’s pet parakeet to birdy heaven?

It’s a valid question. On the face of it, all the hallmarks appear present and accounted for. Food poisoning, embarrassing drunken monologues, set pieces in which enormous cookies are punched in and motoring laws systematically abused. But what else? There’s a bimbo, this time a male with ridiculous ideas about his own sexual prowess. There’s bonding over sex talk, seedy escapades at sweaty diners, awkward public speeches and a promising Vegas chapter. Boxes are being ticked here, but what does that mean?

It seems that between the (very literally speaking) shits and giggles, this film has hit upon some odd sort of gender appropriation. It can easily be said that Bridesmaids is a kind of ‘bromance’ film in which the ‘dudes’ are now hot women in pumps. It’s not a stretch to then begin to wonder whether these women are being funny simply by behaving like men. And then to ask – is this truly a new kind of female humour?

I hesitate. A little echo of my bachelor education in 1970s performance art is sounding out, demanding that female comedic empowerment can only be proven by the presence of menstrual humour or the objectification of a hoard of Chippendales dancers, who will run naked and in slow motion, crotch to camera. On the other hand, Bridesmaids lays waste to any inkling that jokes about shitting yourself in public or making out with a friend of the same gender can only be funny when performed by men. Funny is simply funny. This of course I must swiftly accompany with the reminder that toilet humour is only one very limited and repetitive type of funny. Gosh, covered.

Despite all this gross-out humour, none of the women of Bridesmaids seem ruffled from their general glamour and attractiveness. There are a few abject moments but on the whole it’s heels and ringlets all round. A male friend recently showed me the self-explanatorily-named in which an almost identical mix of sexy women and bizarre abjectification is employed to a to an end confusingly halfway between pornography and blockbuster humour. I can only wonder whether producer Judd Apatow has seen this too.

What Bridesmaids does is to re-enforce what it is women appreciate in an onscreen alter-ego (for, be sure, director Paul Fieg will have banked on female audiences wanting a lead who feels familiar, who is flying their flag). What struck me particularly about this film was how strongly it picked up on the fact that women like their leads to be misunderstood. Wounded but right. Ostracised but justified. As Annie’s life fell apart around her and she suffered the derision of her friends and lovers, the audience knew it wasn’t really her fault. This makes that ‘I told you so’ redemptive scene all the sweeter. And by god, that’s an unhealthy thing to want to watch, especially as it really does make up the meat of the plot here. The last time I watched somebody lose their house, partner, job, car and prospects all in one film was at the beginning of Stripes. How different it is for a film to use that disaster as a plot instead of a premise. A plot about losing the plot isn’t much of a plot at all, I’m afraid.

Whilst undeniably funny and containing a kind of rainbow of comedic techniques Bridesmaids isn’t well written at all. It’s strong points are its set pieces, in lavishly decorated interiors, where the female bridal party goes about the arbitrary business of organising the innumerable wedding ‘events’, such as the shower, engagement party and hen’s night. The comedic skills of Matt Lucas (formerly the only gay in the village) and Australia’s Rebel Wilson (Fat Pizza, The Wedge) are totally squandered on weak roles, especially given that American audiences will have limited knowledge of their best work. Perhaps they are tasteless shout-outs to British and Australian audiences? Appearances by other men are few, bar the IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd appearing as a delightfully tolerant police officer and Anna’s emergent love interest. Even the wedding scenes tend to crop out the groom. Can the perfect female comedy contain so few men?

Where Bridesmaids does land on the mark, and electrically so, is the way in which it displays how difficult it can be to maintain strong friendships over long periods and through hard times. The female friendship is a unique beast of innumerable variations and fluctuations, which, like all relationships, must be tended and nurtured. Often this means identifying what kind of company you like to keep, what you need to talk through, how comfortable you are together, and trying not to let your friend’s bad attitude or bad luck rub off on you. All these little nuances are covered but never named, and in that way really encourage a bigger empathetic stretch for audiences.

Whilst Bridesmaids is probably going to be the first of a spate of ladette films I can’t help but notice the trajectory of ‘for women’ cinema. The romantic comedy, the indulgent shopping film and the date movie (arguably ‘for women’) have all in some way failed to deliver on the promise of real humour by real women. The characters have been too rich, too beautiful, too dull, too idiotic, too worry-free or some such inaccuracy to be good humourists. In truth, the best female comic actors are working in TV, your Leslie Knopes, Elaine Benness’s, Liz Lemons and Lucille Bluths. I’m not sure Bridesmaids hit the bullseye, but it’s certainly nearer the mark than anything Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t help but wonder about.



It might be true that when you reach a certain level of comedic notoriety in Britain, media conglomerates will let you try your hand at anything; guest appearances on quiz shows, childrens’ books, miscellaneous podcasts, miniseries about visiting the states; perhaps prepare a budget so that two middle-aged comedians can tour some of Britain’s best restaurants.  So goes the plot of The Trip, a further jaunt by director Michael Winterbottom into the pitiable realms of British stardom, travelled to previously with Steve Coogan in ‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’. This time Coogan is joined by long-time peer and ‘Gavin and Stacey’ regular Rob Bryden.

Steve Coogan (as a delicately exaggerated version of himself) has found himself in the unenviable situation of having his much younger, American girlfriend leave the country. This creates a gaping hole in his plans for a romantic gastronomic tour of Britain’s best restaurants for two. Coogan resignedly calls comic Rob Bryden (also playing himself), whom he is yet to admit to the status of ‘friend’, but who is near the last resort from those Coogan could stomach a mini break with, however lavish it may be. The pair set off so that to review six of the best culinary experiences Britain has to offer. The meals are wolfed down with seeming little appreciation for the exclusivity, or current trendiness of fine dining. The entertainers have little knowledge or interest in food writing, and certainly no measurable ability to adopt the heinous food terms we have come to associate with fine dining. Yes, MasterChef’die-hards, forget about your ‘proteins’, ‘plating up’ and any subtle hints of ‘acidity’ here.

The film is shot handheld and documentary-style, yet whilst partially scripted and choreographed is presented as a fly-on-the-wall look at the very private luncheon and hotel room experiences of the pleasingly odd couple. It exposes two of the most recognisable comedians from the UK at a most precarious and vulnerable stage in their careers, which they grapple with as inadequately as they do knives and forks. However, like with Tristram, Winterbottom has artfully modelled Rob and Steve’s performances to exist as squarely semi-fictional. The result is that the pair’s private lives appear to be a logical manifestation of their public lives, careers and popular reputations.

In substance, The Trip is a composite barrage of Rob and Steve’s favourite impressions, industry banter, novelty sing-song and their special love for critiquing each others’ work. This largely takes the shape of pigeonholing each other; Rob is a silly gag-writer with low expectations for the rest of his career and whose most famous invention is a high-pitched voice belonging to a “man in a box”. Meanwhile, Steve longs to break Hollywood, but instead sleeps with miscellaneous waitstaff and grapples with anxieties about ageing, selling out and simply ceasing to be funny. In short, these are weary men, who in different ways have become stuck riffing on their own past successes. This trauma exists both inside and outside of the film itself, as both its content and it’s premise.

The Trip is something of a visual feast, real food pornography beside a soothing full-colour travelogue of the misty fields and dry-stone walls of middle England. The beauty of the meals and views is the silken thigh against which Bryden and Coogan’s lowbrow dialogue slowly chafes. Slowly a rash appears on the landscape. You can’t see the pristine wood for all the Sean Connery impersonations, and you no longer feel a desire for eating when the conversation turns to bitterly personal remarks or candid jealousies. Not to mention their abject eating habits can really take the gloss off of a chocolate pudd.

In line with this clash of high and low is certainly the constant discussion of money. These two comedians are eating and living via a generous media expense account, whose costs they tally up at the end of each meal as though they are notches on belts. Despite its differing prices, the food seems only as good as Coogan and Bryden’s mood allows it, yet becomes something of a motif – checking the price at the bottom of the bill is a way for marking the passing of the time they have spent together. They’re painfully aware they have to justify the expense by producing a written piece that ekes out just enough comedic value to be lucrative. Inversely, The Trip was an incredibly cheap film to make.

This fluctuation between acting and improvising, biography and fiction, and ultimately sexy and sad is what makes this film such a delight. Despite having been strung together out of a six-part TV series, the story has lost little of its bite and seems to work, relatively speaking, just as well as a feature film. Winterbottom has selected material neatly, and the melancholy ditty used to unmercifully depress viewers at the end of each episode of the TV version is resurrected to great effect in the film.  

The Trip might not impress viewers who are hoping for a positive, fratpack-style ending, or of being walked through a set of Stiller-calibre mishaps that promote male bonding. But that is what’s so masterful about it. Sometimes your best friend is the one whose life decisions you can’t fathom and who will tell you if there’s a piece of £40 braised scallop in your teeth, making sure to mention how depressing it makes you look.