Tuesday’s reviews – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Tuesday’s reviews – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

So, the Sunday that has just gone happened to be 31st July, which is a big day for Harry Potter fans. It is JK Rowling’s birthday and, subsequently, the fictional birthday of the boy wizard, Harry Potter, himself. As I’m sure there is no need to mention, the final day of July 2016 also happened to be the release date of the rehearsal edition script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This is the critically acclaimed theatrical tale that has become the supposed 8th ‘book’ in the series. I wasn’t sure if I would buy the script but, having such a small amount of self-control when it comes to books, I bought one on Monday and proceeded to read the majority of it that night. I started work at 7am this morning so I fucking regretted that decision as I was waking up today. Still, I finished it with just enough time to get my review out for today’s Tuesday Reviews. As we’ve already established on this blog, I’m a pretty shitty Potterhead and can’t promise I’ll be positive as most about this book. Still, I doubt anyone is actually coming here for sound advice when they could have my mindless rants instead… with added spoilers of course.

It’s not as if I’ve been hiding my negative feelings towards any future stories that JR Rowling may write concerning the Harry Potter series. I’ve always thought the idea of writing sequels, follow-ups and spin-offs as a move almost as desperate and cringey as the fucking epilogue. The story was finished and we didn’t need to delve back into Harry’s post-Hogwarts life. Still, as I always knew would happen, JK Rowling proves once again that she just doesn’t know where to stop. So we have the so-called 8th book: a story overseen and co-created by Rowling but written by Jack Thorne. We were promised by Rowling that the new tale would be a completely knew story and not a rehash of previous material. What we were given is a time-travel rehash of old plots with a bunch of new characters. Oops.

Since Prisoner of Azkaban JK Rowling has had to deal with the issue of time travel in her wizarding world. What gave a super dramatic and magical plot in the third book opened up a bunch of plotholes that Rowling just didn’t want to let herself fall into. I mean if Hermione could utilise time travel to attend a fuckload of classes then why couldn’t someone go back in time and just give Voldy a hug once in a while? It was an issue that she resolved as quickly as she could by destroying all of the time turners in the Department of Mysteries in Book 5. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Well apparently not. As not all the time turners were destroyed. Which is lucky because without the one remaining device Rowling might not have been able to charge loyal fans the considerable ticket price for her new sell-out production.

Basically, The Cursed Child is the Back to the Future 2 of the Harry Potter world. BTTF 2 revisited the timeline of the first film after a brief stop in the future and The Cursed Child, after reintroducing us to the kid with the most vomit-inducing name in the history of English literature, revisits some of the most major events in Potter history. Albus Severus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, go back in time to prevent Cedric Diggory from dying during the Triwizard Tournament. Of course, as cliche dictates, their benevolent act ends up royally fucking everything up. Scorpius enters a hellish world in which Voldermort lived, Harry Potter died and, most joyful of all, never ended up having the power to name any offspring. The Cursed Child tells the story of how the boys can return the magical world to it’s non-Voldermorty ways before it’s too late.

Way back in 2012 I suggested that the film War Horse suffered in comparison to the critically acclaimed theatrical production because it lacked the interest of the puppetry. It’s true that the staging of the play had a lot to do with the fact that War Horse became such a popular story. That’s how I feel about this play. After The Cursed Child came to the stage people were raving about it and, with any play, you lose a lot of the magic when you don’t see it performed as it was intended. Without the special effects the staging directions add very little and without hearing them spoken out-loud the words just seem stilted and not very natural. Although, I can’t really complain about that if I’m the fucking idiot who insists on reading a script instead of a book.

However, I can and will complain about the story that sits within those pages. The Cursed Child is basically a terrible example of fanfiction that has someone become super famous. I know I’ve comapred it to about three different things already but I’m going to say it’s Fifty Shades of Grey with less BDSM and more time travel. The story itself is very weak and, frankly quite dull. We don’t really get to grips with the modern day Harry Potter world anymore than we did in the epilogue and spend more time in the past we already know. This isn’t about moving Harry Potter’s story but is all about revisiting his glittering past. This isn’t JK and co trying to write a new and great story. This is them cashing in on the old tales that everybody loved.

We get to know Albus and Scorpius a little but much of the tale set in modern times basically concerns how shit a dad Harry is. It’s basically a hyperbolic melodrama that belongs in a daytime drama and not on the stage. Then we just go back to the three trails of the Triwizard Tournament and the moment that Harry’s parents die. We don’t learn anything new or interesting… except one thing of course. Now I was serious about those spoilers so if you don’t know turn back now. You gone? Good. Voldermort’d fucking daughter is the most ridiculous and fanfiction-esque plot I could have imagined. It doesn’t even make sense. It doesn’t fit into the timeline. Plus, the idea that Voldermort would have had a moment of clarity within the haze of narcissm to say “hmm I might die one day better pass on my genes” just doesn’t fit with the character. He never expected to lose so the idea that he needed to reproduce would never have occured to him. It’s fucking stupid.

This isn’t an exercise in literary genius but a shameless attempt to speak to people’s nostalgia. The play knows people want to meet of these characters again and happily rolls them all out one after the other. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Minerva, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Cedric, James, Lilly, Snape, Voldermort, Umbridge, even the fucking Centaur comes back. Except they aren’t really back because it’s not actually JR writing it. Now I know I’ve not always been complimentary about her writing style over the years but there is one thing Jo knows and it’s her characters. The characters in The Cursed Child are just pale imitations very obviously written by someone else. Nobody sounds right. The Severus Snape we see here is just the disgusting image that Tumblr has of him being a tragic Romantic hero. Dumbledore and Harry keep having moments where they express their love for each other, which just feels wrong.

The Cursed Child is both warmly familiar yet so disturbingly different that I couldn’t get on board with it. If it weren’t the stuff of time travel stories like the play itself, I’d happily say that Freud wrote his theory about the uncanny around it. However, that’s taking things a bit too far. Freud told us that the uncanny would bring about cognitive dissonance due to its paradoxical nature. We are simultaneously drawn to something yet wary of it and so we reject it completely. If Freud hadn’t been utterly refuted over the years I would say this sums up the negative feelings that a lot of fans have experienced since reading the book. I know that I, for one, want nothing more to do with it. It was a thing that never needed to happen and the fact that it’s now canon could have potentially destroyed the good work that Rowling had already done. I hope she eventually goes back on this and, like the epilogue, we can all pretend it never happened.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

 (Sorry it’s another long one.)

As I’ve already spent time on here trying to prove that we owe a lot to Bryan Singer and his early adaptations of Marvels’ mutant heroes. Without the well-made and still brilliant X-Menback in 2000 we quite probably wouldn’t have been treated to such cinematic delights as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy, Joss Whedon’s Avengers and the revamped Amazing Spider-Man. Singer was the guy who, after the heartbreak from Joel Schumacher’s reign of terror, reminded us that comic book films could be great. The moment he stepped away from the franchise was when it all started to go wrong. So I have been on tenterhooks ever since it was announced that Bryan Singer would be back to direct this sequel to 2011’s acclaimed X-Men FirstClass. Add to that the fact that it would be an adaptation of the brilliant ‘Days of Future Past’ storyline and we have a painstaking wait for the release date on our hands. I watched the trailers so many times that I was acting them out in private doing my best P. Stew impression.

Singer’s film takes inspiration from the 80s storyline that saw Kitty Pryde’s consciousness being sent back to her past self in order to prevent a horrific dystopian future. However, with the dismal Last Stand showing Kitty (Ellen Page) to be only about 20, there was always going to be a problem creating a sequel to First Class that centred on her character. Step forward everyone’s favourite magnetic Canadian and we have a guaranteed hit with film audiences.

Opening with scenes of an apocalyptic future where a small band of mutants, some very familiar, are going to great efforts to avoid the deadly and now adaptable Sentinels. They are soon discovered by ex-headmaster Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and ex-villain Magneto (Ian McKellan) who have a plan to prevent the moment that started this horrific chain of events. Using Kitty’s newly discovered power to send people’s minds back in time, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to his 70s body to gather the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Eric  (Michael Fassbender) together to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) fucking everything up by shooting the creator of the aforementioned Sentinels.
Queue plenty of 70s paraphernalia, including lava lamps, flairs and questionable hair styles. I read a review that suggested Days of Future Past didn’t have as much fun with recreating its chosen era as First Class did. Having seen the film twice I can only assume that the critic responsible missed the previous films historically accurate but fucking ridiculous misogyny and objectification of women. Singer does everything he has to do to show that Wolverine is back in time without needing to continually force his female cast to strip off unnecessarily.
Instead, Singer focuses on plot and has gone to great lengths to ensure that the potentially confusing time-travel narrative doesn’t get out of control. The two timeframes are handled beautifully and come together perfectly. The film’s climax, where the action jumps between past and future, is expertly conducted and provides the first time in 15 years that Storm (Halle Berry) becomes as awesome as she is in the comics. He has great control of the special effects and, unlike plenty of these films, doesn’t get bogged down with gratuitous action sequences. Under Singer’s firm hand, everything happens to help the narrative move forward. Of course there is the usual check-list of things X-Men clichés and there is something of a bloat of in-jokes to keep the hardcore fans happy. However, there are also so many fantastic things: the introduction of Blink, whose power is used fantastically in the future battle sequences; terrifying Sentinels; a sharp script and exciting cameos.

Without a doubt, the film’s stand out sequence is the scene in which the newly introduced Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is shown diffusing a tense situation in bullet time set to Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’. It’s a fucking beautiful scene and is incredibly funny. Had someone told me prior to my first viewing that Evan Peters would have the standout performance in this film I’d have slapped them for being so absurd. However, the brief moments that Quicksilver is on screen show that the character has great potential in future films. So much so that I’m terrified of the way Marvel will handle the character in Avengers 2.  Peters made the character his own and I was genuinely sad when Xavier sent him on his way early on.
Since, despite having a cast of great names, of both the acting and comic book worlds, this film is all about James McAvoy. McAvoy made a fine start in First Class but was outshone by his more prominent co-stars. Here we see Charles Xavier as we have never seen him before: both physically and emotionally broken and without his powers. He rejects his purpose and is willing to turn his back on his future. McAvoy is mesmerising as he struggles to reconnect with the two people who turned their back on him. Even alongside the physically intimidating and much loved Wolverine, McAvoy comes out as one of the standout stars.
An even more impressive task considering the legendary Patrick Stewart, the name that will forever be synonymous with Xavier’s, is back along with his partner in crime Ian McKellan. Ever since the post-credits scene after The Wolverine (after which I felt compelled to applaud) I have been impatient to see their return. I have always appreciated the fact that these two classically trained actors have never approached this material in anything but a professional manner. Having Stewart and McKellen on screen in these roles is a fucking joy to watch and, during the films climactic moments, nearly had me in tears. It’s always great seeing amazing actors in roles that they clearly enjoy.
A quality that you can always appreciate about Hugh Jackman: no matter how terrifying his continually pumped body gets (seriously it’s beginning to worry me. Look how veiny he is in this film. Step away from the weights Hugh) he always has fun with the character. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a great deal to do here. Wolverine is left to take his shirt off and act as little more than the facilitator to the younger generation. This could have been worked with anyone being in his place but I guess it’s always nice to see the ole bone claws every now and then.
Wolverine goes back to prevent Mystique from assassinating Trask and causing the government to take greater action against the mutants. One would assume this would be good news for all J Law fans but I have to say I was utterly disappointed with the way she was used. Despite a few awesome fight sequences, Mystique had very little to work with. There is little explanation for her sudden descent into super villainy and no real attempt to further flesh out the character from the first film. There are hints at a relationship with Magneto and a tiny reference to her history with Hank but nothing to excite. J Law is really just going through the motions here.
This is something of a problem with the film as it has such a large cast to work with that many end up getting swept under the carpet. You know you’ve got too many characters when you introduce someone as fucking cool as Bishop only to have him do nothing. It’s fucking criminal. I mean Peter Dinklange is one of the greatest actors working at the moment and his casting as Boliver Trask, designer of the mutant killing robots that haunted all of our childhood dreams, seemed like pure genius. For some unknown reason Dinklage turns up for the odd political meeting where he spouts on about mutants and robots and then just stands around. I don’t understand what these people were thinking. Great actors deserve great roles even in the fantasy world of mutants, robots and time travel.
Likewise Michael Fassbender is once again unable to really get to grips with the supposedly evil Magneto and is only given one sequence of slight conflict. This is Fassbender’s second time playing with the mental manipulator and he has failed to come close to greatness he briefly displayed in the opening moments of First Class. This wasn’t Magneto’s film, I know, but there still doesn’t feel like there is any connection between Fass and McKellen’s truly villainous version besides their name and power. With an actor of Fassbender’s calibre you could create a fucking gruesome nemesis (I mean this is the man who appalled us in 12 Years a Slave after all) if only you gave him something to do besides making a football stadium float.

To be fair though the floating stadium is a pretty amazing visual. It’s the closest Singer gets to unnecessary but it stands for everything this film is about. Days of Future Past flirts with darkness in the opening sequence (we see death, destruction and a glimpse of mutant prison camps) but it is all about fun. It’s the film that comes closest to the feeling and tone of the original comics whilst remaining sophisticated and well-crafted. 

It’s been just over a week since Days of Future Past was released in the UK and I’ve already had to fit in a double viewing. It’s safe to say that Bryan Singer has more than made amends for the disappointing Super Man Returns and returned to near enough his comic book best. Unfortunately, Days of Future Pastis, undeniably, a flawed film: it ignores some of its better cast members and characters and sometimes gets a little too self-indulgent. However, it’s exactly what it should be: an unashamedly joyous, exciting and well-made superhero movie. You finally get the sense that, after 15 years of trying to avoid it, Bryan Singer is finally comfortably with the idea of making a comic book movie and it’s entertaining as fuck.