devil’s advocate

Devil’s Advocate: The Harry Potter films shouldn’t have been made

Steven Spielberg first acquired the rights to make a Tintin movie in 1983. He commissioned screenwriter Melissa Mathison, with whom Spielberg had had sensational success on E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial, to write a script. Jack Nicholson was even approached about playing Captain Haddock. But that film didn’t get made. Spielberg was not satisfied with the script or that he could realise his vision for the film. What a sign of respect and love for the subject matter that one of the world’s greatest directors waited twenty five years before he thought he could make the movie the franchise deserved. The British public have hailed The Secret of the Unicorn as just that, spending 6.7 million pounds to see it since it opened last Wednesday. Innovative motion capture technology, a clever amalgamation of original stories and a stellar cast have led to a fun-filled romp that looks to be the best family film of the year.

This forms a stark comparison with another well known children’s character who has been committed to film over the last decade. The most interestingly filmed passage of the Harry Potter series appeared late in the octalogy; a stylised animation sequence that explained the legend of the Deathly Hallows. It was creative storytelling at its very best. Practically Spielbergian. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule for the series.

It is easy to see how such conservative films were made; legions of excited fans with equally large expectations, big business providing financial pressures, JK Rowling closely involved. Few people were surprised when they left the cinema having watched a narrowed version of their imagined literary world on screen. Did anyone actually prefer the films to the books? Independent of Harry’s written adventures, the films don’t stand up to great scrutiny. However, this is not surprising when what is supposed to be an overarching storyline is undertaken without a single auteur who knows how the story ends.

Making middle of the road family films is not a heinous crime. The logistical considerations involved make producing any film a great achievement. But when any film with the boy wizard involved is a sure-fire, hundred-million dollar hit, able to attract leading acting talent shouldn’t the audience expect more? These ‘open goals’ could be viewed as opportunities to really further cinema. Take risks, tell stories in creative ways, innovate! Recent book adaptations have provided breathtaking, cinematic films; We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy have all been great successes that function as films in their own right. Do not think that the feat is impossible with children’s characters either. Think of the countless Roald Dahl stories that have been inventively told on screen, most notably the recent Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and the timeless classic The BFG. During production on TTSS John Le Carré said to Tomas Alfredson not to do the book on screen. The book already exists. Make cinema. Just as Tintin was told through the eyes of Snowy so too could a Harry Potter film be told from a different point of view or in a more ingenious, cinematic way. Imagine films with Hagrid at their centre or that chart the rise and fall of Tom Riddle.

The Harry Potter film franchise has had many positive repercussions; practically singlehandedly creating a special effects industry in this country, putting familiar British faces on the global stage and giving John Williams an excuse to compose another sumptuous score. But it seems a shame that the films were made at a time when the hysteria and commercial pressures hurried the films into production; a shame that a director with a love and respect for the franchise wasn’t allowed to sit on the rights for twenty five years and bring a much loved children’s book to a subsequent generation; a shame that this opportunity to film a cohesive creative story wasn’t taken.

Sam Poppleton

The MPAA will watch rape all day long but for God’s sake don’t show them your penis

When Michael Fassbender parades around your latest with his chap out you know you’re in for trouble. Alas, the artist (and now accomplished film director) Steve McQueen seems unfazed by such bother with his latest cinematic effort , Shame, revelling in it’s realistic depiction of sex addiction and as much as the American ratings board hates to see it, that inevitably includes some genitals. On screen genitals. Literal, on-screen, bodily genitals.

Now you may think that I’m overstating the presence of genitals here, but for the MPAA they are a not inconsiderable sign of depraved horrendousness. Whilst The Hangover, The Life of Brian, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have easily passed through the ratings system by showing us the comical side of man’s silliest of endowments, when it comes to sexualising genitalia the MPAA often loses its sense of humour a little.

The American ratings board has a long and confusing history in this most natural of areas. Stick a prosthetic impostor down there (think Mark Wahlberg’s stocking stuffer from Boogie Nights) and hey presto, you’re got yourself an R-rating. Whop out the organic alternative then you better be playing it for comic effect or it’s an NC-17 and you’ll be kicked out of cinemas faster than you can say “it’s faintly ridiculous that a perfectly natural appendage is given the same classificatory status as sexualised violence”. Or something to that effect. Watching directors play peek-a-boo with a carefully placed lampshade here or a cheekily placed sausage there isn’t really conducive in many cases to the depiction of matter-of-fact everyday life, or sex, that films often wish to portray.

Relegated to gay-panic scenes in Judd Apatow productions and racial stereotyping in films like Hall Pass the sexualised or serious depiction of the penis is one of the last taboos in mainstream American cinema. An uninterested, lazy, flaccid phallus may be a natural preset, but there is so much more to the poor fella than meets the American cinematic eye. Refused a full performance and left underappreciated and impotent it’s about time audiences (but mainly the censors) began to realise that penises are used for so much more than casual laughs and that when films seek to depict said uses it may not be all that bad if one sneaks it’s way into view.

Now I’m not saying that I want to see unsimulated sex in every film that I go into but nor do I want a perfectly natural evocation of sexuality restrained by the whims of the close-minded censors and cinema-chains. Adult films are meant to be for adults. Adults who have sex or don’t have sex or have the option to have sex. Don’t want to see a penis? Then don’t have sex (at least with the lights on). Don’t want to see a penis in the cinema? Then don’t watch the film. Fair enough. But for those who do one should let them make an adult decision and let them see adult films. I’m not talking porn here but I’m not talking some soft-core nonsense either. When the BBFC classified Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs as an 18 unsimulated depictions of penetrative sex (which had been seen before in Intimacy although not in as graphic fashion), oral sex and male ejaculation were given an airing on our conventional cinema screens for the first time. The film may have been mindnumbingly boring but it proved that adults can see such ‘outrageous debauchery’ and come out unscathed and sane. Whilst also bored out of their minds of course. Whilst British audiences are treated as sentient, progressive beings capable of exercising judgement and taste in their visits to the big-screen, America treats its audience with a censorious, nannying contempt that sees them as being irrational prudes with brains the size of testicles.

In the case of McQueen’s Shame the sexually explicit film has been awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA (the American censors) due to its extensive and sexualised depiction of its lead actor’s penis (well that and seeing him urinate out of it as well). In real terms this equates to the British ‘18’ rating, but whilst over here such a classification raises no controversy whatsoever, the American equivalent is box-office poison.

Like a lingering disease cured only by cuts to the most nefarious bits of your running time, the NC-17 has long been the leper of US distribution. Whilst the American censors are nice enough to not ban you entirely from seeing a film containing ostensibly adult content, many cinema chains indirectly will. Many both refuse to promote and flat out refuse to show NC-17 rated films due to the institutionalised stigma that comes with them. Choked from screenings and public goodwill they often fall by the wayside and it is extremely rare for a film to not appeal against what is often considered a label of disrepute. With Shame however Fox Searchlight seeks to change all that by embracing the NC-17 as “a badge of honour, not a scarlet letter.” Their dogged promotion of the film and it’s likely candidacy for awards consideration come New Year may just be what is needed to break the taboo of this most divisive of classifications once and for all.

Though it may sound fair enough to award Shame what is functionally an ‘18’ rating, all the board requires of them to receive the generally acceptable R certificate is to cut out Fassbender’s explicit bits. But when a film treats its subject matter as maturely as Shame does and with an uncompromising artistry that is hard not to respect, why should the director’s unflinching portrayal of sex have to get in the way of a seemingly arbitrary American aversion to male genitalia? Genitals given the right context aren’t generally considered to be morally offensive or “liable to deprave or corrupt” so why is their sexualised depiction treated in the same leagues as violent, abusive sex? Any on-screen delivery of everyday consentual sex is always going to be less disturbing than a rape scene or a graphic and realistically delivered murder, right? Anyway, anyone who is likely to be depraved or corrupted by the sight of a penis is probably as mad as a box of Von Trier’s to begin with.

One may see the problem here as being with the inherent stigma attached to the NC-17 by cinema chains and the public at large but the MPAA has a lot to answer for. When disturbing and sexually explicit films like Requiem for a Dream (after with its required cuts but still featuring coercive sexual acts), Blue Valentine (after extensive appeals) and Last House on the Left (delivered with no shortage of visceral rape, torture and murder) receive ‘R’ ratings it’s hard to see why a film like Shame should be unfairly maligned just because it’s lead actor literally couldn’t keep it in his pants. He’s playing a sex addict, what did they expect?

- Ross Jones-Morris

Devil’s Advocate: The most obnoxious man in Hollywood

L. B. Jeffries wheels himself over to his apartment window. He picks up a pair of heavy-duty binoculars and brings them to his eyes, allowing him to better see his neighbours going about their private lives. Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thriller Rear Window is a masterpiece, a classic made possible by the master director’s finesse for drawing tension out of a scene and the engrossing lead performance by James Stewart, whose actions and reactions seem perfectly in line with how the audience is feeling.  Updating the story would never be an easy task, and recasting the lead would be especially difficult. James Stewart is one of the true Hollywood greats; he carried himself like an everyman but had a magnetic charisma that pervaded each of his performances and demanded your attention. For the remake, Disturbia, to be a success that matched the original, a really talented actor would need to take on his role. Unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf got the gig.

Shia LaBeouf brings nothing to a film. Think about any performance you might have seen of his. Try and recall something positive that he brought to that film, and you’ll find yourself struggling. When he appears in enjoyable films, such as I, Robot, he’s simply forgettable. But when he’s in a bad film, as is the case more often than not, he grabs your attention for all the wrong reasons. His nervous fidgeting across the screen is an annoyance, his flat delivery of dialogue is completely devoid of any real expression or depth, and it’s impossible to watch a performance of him and see the character rather than the actor.

His selection of films is just abysmal.  Ed Wood famously thought that he was making great movies, but Shia is under no such illusions. On multiple occasions he has come out and said that the film he was paid millions of dollars to star in, and that audiences paid millions of dollars to watch, was terrible. Such a statement might be refreshingly honest if it was used to expunge one blemish on a filmography. But when he does it film after film, you have to wonder if there’s some kind of connecting link behind why these films were terrible. But more than just being bad, his career seems to be a mission to destroy the memory of as many iconic films (and action figures) as possible. Aside from Rear Window, he’s helped to ruin Wall Street, Indiana Jones and Transformers, as if engaged in a competition with Hayden Christensen to see who can leave audiences with the sourest taste in their mouths.

The reason he’s still getting work could perhaps be explained if he was a professional worker and a great asset for studios when it came to the promotion of their films. He isn’t. He’s allegedly fought with Tom Hardy on-set , made headline news several times for being in trouble with the law, and can’t give an interview without embarrassing himself. While ostensibly working to market his films he’s told Megan Fox’s boyfriend he slept with her, called out Steven Spielberg for “dropping the ball”, claimed to have turned down 127 Hours and The Social Network because they weren’t “Warren Beatty-type game changers”, and criticised many of his co-stars. Harrison Ford described him best: Shia LaBeouf cannot promote a film without “making a complete ass” of himself.

Shia LaBeouf cannot act. He cannot work well with others. He cannot promote films. Why does he keep getting employed? I have no idea. All I can hope is that a recurring nightmare I have where he remakes The Graduate, tells everyone he pulled Katharine Ross and then insults Simon & Garfunkel never comes true.