Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Columbus
viewed: 11/27/02 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

The Harry Potter phenomenon. Like many such phenomena, 99% of it is media-made hype. That is hardly breaking news, but it’s still worth pointing out when approaching a film like this.

In a slightly less cynical time, not all that long ago, I still enjoyed these big Hollywood productions for what they were and came to think that the hype and commercialism could easily be viewed as all part of the film. The media frenzy is a wholly intentional and heavily “worked at” goal of the studios and the monies behind these products. With tie-in’s at fast food chains, toys in every format that one could imagine, and video games to boot, the film experience of a big Hollywood prefab “blockbuster” is inclusive of the barrage and inescapability of the film all around us,…whether we see it or not.

When I say it was a less cynical attitude, I mean that I kind of enjoyed the onslaught, the gluttony, the gimmicks and toys. I found it fascinating and amusing. Now, I just see lots of landfill.

This extraneous noise of the hype of a film, its ubiquitous advertising and its shared cultural excitement (which most of the children — and some adults I know — share in), is absolutely a significant part of the viewing of a movie like this. I think it often plays heavily into the frequent disappointment that films such as this evoke. I mean, how could they in fact live up to so much hype?

I also often wonder about the way that these films will play in years to come. They are such products of their time, often rooted heavily in the special effects of their time, and they tend to reflect the most polished and “cutting edge” technologies and ideas of a period. They become dated and passe very quickly. And years later, when the hype has petered out, they will be seen with totally different eyes and in utterly different contexts.

Again, this is always true of pretty much any film or cultural product. And I am sure, I am not saying anything new here. But this is all part of the “baggage” with which I approached this film.

I have read the first two Harry Potter books (keeping up with the kids on the street and all) and while I don’t think that they are ground-breaking classics of children’s literature, I did enjoy them and I do think that they mostly represent a better cultural phenomenon than, say…Pokemon.

So, anyway, about this film. I thought it was better than the first film, which did an amazing job at rendering the world of the books visually and a reasonable job at casting. I thought the first film’s visual design was excellent, but its rushed narrative tried to pack in the entirety of the story. It ended up being less engaging than I would have liked. This film had the same visual design (less significant in its familiarity, but still very nice) and seemed to be better overall. Of course, I found the second book to have a better sense of narrative development, too, so maybe that had something to do with it, too.

There are a lot worse cultural products and a lot worse films than this one. The film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is not bad, but one ought to be suspicious of all things that come with too much excess effluvia and hype. I am.

Eight Legged Freaks

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Ellory Elkayem
viewed: 11/06/02

Semi-fun homage to the giant insect/arachnid subgenre of horror films. What it lacks in invention it makes up for (as much as it can) in its embrace of silliness and action. The film moves along at a fair clip, telling the story deftly and succinctly (of course in a myriad of cliches), never sitting still long enough for one to dwell on its short-comings.

While it is moderate fun, particularly in its dumber qualities (a guy on a motorbike popping up in the air and kicking a leaping spider at the same time, for example), it lacks the earnest seriousness of the films to which it offers homage, but rather thrives on its lack of seriousness. While films like Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), & The Deadly Mantis (1957) have more camp value now for their earnestness, Eight Legged Freaks embraces the camp (with all eight legs) yet almost makes fun of its the silly (perfunctory – a genre staple) environmental theme (the toxic waste placed in the Arizona desert caves that leads to the growth of the giant spiders). I suppose a more clever film would manage to somehow embrace this aspect of the genre as well.

Nine Queens

 

Nine Queens (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Fabián Bielinsky
viewed: 11/02/02

Slick, clever film about two con artists who meet up and make a pact to work together for exactly 24 hours. Scheming and shysting ensue. Probably the first Agentine film that I have ever seen. I have not been able to come up with a lot to say about this film despite the fact that it was probably the best dvd film that I have watched in a month or two. I am still stymied on this point.

This movie is really very good. I recommend it to all.

The Shipping News

The Shipping News (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Lasse Hallström
viewed: 11/02/02

Lasse Hallström is a competent mainstream Hollywood director, and The Shipping News is a decent, yet uninspired literary adaptation melodrama. Miramax, who produced this film, must have decided that Hallström is a specialist in the literary adaptation, since this is only the latest of several such productions that he has helmed in recent years (others have included Chocolat (2000), The Cider House Rules (1999), and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)). My favorite of his films, 1985’s My Life as a Dog was also a literary adaptation, so maybe that just simply is his thing.

This film seems a lot less inspired in a lot of ways, though. It seems like just the sort of film that Miramax has Hallström produce almost annually to take a shot at gaining some Oscar nominations. It’s also, like many of the other or Hallström
films, is a reasonably engaging narrative lacking in anything so edgy as to keep it from being the kind of film that one might watch with one’s parents or grandparents (I watched this one with my step-mother, for instance).

I find literary adaptation in interesting issue for film, but often in a more practical way. Rarely is a book the exact right length to convert into a film. More often, films must condense or subtract from a narrative to squeeze the story into a palatable two hour duration. I think that the first part of this film really felt like it was racing to get through some major plot moments before it got a chance to settle in to its Newfoundland setting and pace.

What does that say about this film? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid.

Evil Dead Trap

Evil Dead Trap (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. Toshiharu Ikeda
viewed: 10/31/02

I had such a little burst of seeing films that I wound up with a bit of a glut of diary entries to create. Somehow, I missed out that I hadn’t written on this film. I had selected this film as my Halloween horror film treat. I had remembered seeing that it had played at the Roxie a couple of years back and that it had sounded pretty interesting. I don’t think that I had realized at the time that the film was so old (almost fifteen years now), but I thought that I would give it a run.

Interestingly, the scenario of Evil Dead Trap, like the more recent Japanese horror film Ringu (1998), includes a spooky videotape of mysterious origin. The contents of this one, however, are more like a premanatory snuff film, and act more as a catalyst for the action, rather than the story’s main device. The video is anonymously sent into a late night television program that features home-made videos, and its gruesome depictions spur a foursome of journalists to investigate its origin. They are lead to an abandoned factory/warehouse where they are killed one by one by evil forces.

Exactly what happens/happened in the ending, I am not sure. I was very tired and it was late, and as a result the ending is totally muddled in my mind. Since being really drowsy while I watched this film impaired my memory of it, I won’t try to speculate as to what this film was really about.

The film is derivative of a number of major trends in the genre, with nods to Cronenberg, Argento, and Raimi, and lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would give it any keen points of interest. Though, contextualizing it within the horror films of its period, it’s perhaps not terrible, but not overly remarkable either.

CQ

CQ (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Roman Coppola
viewed: 10/29/02

Roman Coppola’s CQ is a highly self-reflexive meditation on the film-making process. This film seems to have a very personal side to it, suggesting that its reflexivity is perhaps all the more literal. Roman is the son of Francis Ford Coppola, the second of the famed director’s children to get a shot at directing a moderately-budgeted indie film recently (Sofia Coppola co-wrote and directed the 1999 film The Virgin Suicides.)

Set in Paris in late 1969, CQ is about the creative process and is centered on the production of a stylish, yet campy and ridiculous Barbarella meets James Bond sci-fi flick. Roman Coppola incorporates a lot of personalized flourishes, like using a framed portion of a door that his father smashed his fist through during the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979) as a prop for a director re-enacts the event one scene of the film, as well as featuring acting roles for his sibling and cousin. There seems to be some commentary and reference being given about the life and times of his father (who was on the brink of his biggest cinematic successes at the beginning of the 1970’s), though I think I would have to research a bit to give more solid support of this notion.

I think that it is interesting that both Coppola children chose to make films set in the period of their respective childhoods, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and both featuring distinctly retro-styled soundtracks by contemporary bands, Mellow (CQ) and Air (The Virgin Suicides), and both with a good deal of sentimentality for the periods. Both films also have a strong sense of production design, though perhaps more in packaging and extraneous pieces more so than in the films themselves. The CQ DVD contains numerous features focusing on design elements, such as the movie posters created for the fictional film within the film.

The result is a curious meditation on the film-making process, written and directed by someone who has never directed his own film before, but whose life has been surrounded by the world of cinema and film production. There are insights and there is cleverness, but not overly profoundly so.

Vampires: Los Muertos

Vampires Los Muertos (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace
viewed: 11/01/02

Don’t ask.

No really…

Okay, I rented this almost solely because it has one of my big guilty pleasure actresses in it, Natasha Gregson Wagner (who here is billed simply as Natasha Wagner), daughter of Natalie Wood. Wagner bears a distinct resemblence to her late mother, though maybe less classically beautiful. She is also not a great actress. It’s an irrational sort of attraction thing, okay? I came to like her from seeing her in Another Day in Paradise (1998) and reconfirmed my liking in Modern Vampires (1998), which is probably one of my all-time guilty pleasures (and it’s pure pleasure and pure guilt there).

So,…I bit,…pardon the pun, I rented Vampires: Los Muertos.

It’s probably easy to see my interest in it, another vampire movie with Natasha (Gregson) Wagner. This film is a sequel to the mediocre, yet not awful Vampires (1998) which was directed by John Carpenter and starred James Woods. Woods didn’t come back for this sequel as the big star in the lead vampire-slaying role, but interestingly enough, a like character is played here by Jon Bon Jovi (a less fully campy selection than I originally thought it might be.) This film also featured Diego Luna, who I liked from Y tu mamá también (2001).The film was released direct-to-video, so as one would imagine, it’s no great masterwork of cinema.

As in the original, the film is a mixture of several genres, borrowing most heavily from the Western, but also, of course, from horror and science fiction/fantasy. The narrative follows a roaming bounty hunter (a lone hired gun) who rounds up a gang of misfits to fight the bad guys, who are in these scenarios vampires.

Bon Jovi’s vampire bounty hunter is meant to read as a tough, “cool” version of the Van Helsing character (who in many other more traditional vampire/Dracula films is often portrayed as a hero, but a very uncool one. This is part of the film’s angle on the traditions. The character is a secular hero, though he is often aligned with equally heroic Catholic priests and monks. Bon Jovi hunts vampires wearing tight jeans, t-shirt, a leather vest, and cowboy boots. He also travels with a surf board, that he never uses. Wagner plays a half-dead victim of a vampire, held in stasis from converting to the “undead” by some drugs that she picked up in Mexico City.

The film wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it was also a less campy than I expected, too. Instead, it’s somewhere in between. A guilty pleasure, but less guilty, and less pleasure.