Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II" by David Pretty

Howdy, Muggles in Mourning!

Honestly, when this film series kicked off a decade ago I could scarcely conceive that it would ever end.  With each new entry in the film series I could hardly contain my excitement.  I remember one time at work blathering on about how I was going to go see Order of the Phoenix on release day which prompted my then-boss to lament: "Harry Potter?  Jesus, isn't that kid dead yet?"

It seemed as if there was always an entry in the series either in the works, freshly released to video, in pre-production or rampantly breaking box-office records while packing bodies into theaters.  I took it for granted Harry Potter would always be in the zeitgeist of pop culture.  But here we are, a full ten years since the release of Philosopher's Stone and we're witnessing the Hogwart's Senior Class experience a graduation they'll never forget.

It's also rather inconceivable to me that at one point the film's producers were having second thoughts about paying the salaries demanded by some of the principal actors.  As if that was ever a possibility; just try to picture this series without the complete participation of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson or Rupert Grint.  All three of them have come to physically embody these characters, trumping the mental picture that J.K. Rowling's economic descriptions have provided.  I challenge anyone to watch the following trailer and supplant any other actors in the pivotal roles of Harry, Hermione or Ron.  It can't be done.    

So, in this final segment, the kids have stopped running and are now taking the fight directly to the forces of darkness, led by a fully-revived and uber-pissed Lord Voldemort.  They do so by tracking down and destroying the last of the Horcruxes, magical artifacts which house a portion of the Dark Lord's essence.  What was originally supposed to serve as a series of spiritual life preservers for He Who Cannot be Named  now seems to be serving as his mystical Achilles Heel.  As each Horcrux is destroyed, Voldemort becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Our heroic triumvirate soon learn that one of the artifacts, the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff, has been stolen by Voldemort ally Beatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham-Carter) and is being interred in the impenetrable goblin bank Gringott's under maximum security.  This first portion of the film features the wildest wild mine card ride since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and then proceeds to play out like a fantasy version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

After this the film segues from heist flick to war movie.  The magical training camp Hogwarts is under lock-down and Severus Snape (Alan Richman), the man responsible for the death of the school's beloved former headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is now in charge.  He rules the school with an iron wand and threatens the students with severe punishment if they chose to aid Harry as rumors of his return begin circulate.  This is a particularly jarring sequence for fans to witness Hogwarts turned into a regimented, lifeless, monochromatic detention camp.   

Harry's re-appearance amongst the student body instantly incites rebellion.  Enraged by what e views as an act of open defiance, Vodemort leads a massive army in an siege against the school.  Needless to say, all hell (and big-budget pyrotechnics) soon breaks loose.

This inevitable "final confrontation" does it's best to impress.  The senior faculty wizards including Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) use their magical arts to set up a protective bubble around the school.  It's creation (and subsequent destruction) makes for one of the film's most thrilling scenes.  It's only trumped by an insane frontal assault on the castle which features hundreds of evil wizards charging across the bridge entrance to Hogwarts (which begs the question, wouldn't a broom-borne aerial assault have been wiser?)

After a  spectacular clash with a horde of animated stone guardians and an explosive lure provided by our favorite nebbish wizard Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), we're witness to a spectacular clash within the walls of the hallowed school itself.  And naturally, there's the final face off between Harry and Voldemort but to reveal any more about the plot or the visuals would be unfair.  Just suffice to say that once this sucker gets going, the film has all the propulsive power of a runaway Knight Bus.

The performances from our troika of heroes is stellar.  Daniel Radcliffe has really become quite adept at his craft and the scenes one might be tempted to play with bombast are tempered by his quiet, understated approach.  This is particularly evidenced in the scene where Harry makes an executive decision about the fate of the Elder Wand.  His bearing is that of a grizzled war veteran who'll do anything he can to ensure that history never repeats itself.

Emma Watson doesn't get as much to do but she's afforded a few nice character nods.  I love that during their frantic escape from Gringott's she still has the presence of mind to be enraged over the cruel treatment of an imprisoned dragon.  Although the increasingly intimate scenes she's asked to share with Rupert Grint must have been awkward, her handling of the Hermione/Ron relationship is both genuine and sincere.  We've waited so long for them to get together that we can't help but cheer.

Of all the three main characters, I feel as if Rupert Grint gets shortchanged the most.  He does get to show his emotional range somewhat when tragedy befalls the Weasely family.  He also expertly completes his character's arc from eternal 'fraidy cat to a competent combat sorcerer.  Still, I can't help but chuckle when Rupert shows shades of his frantic former self in the pyrotechnic conflagration with Malfoy in the Room of Requirement as well as against Voldemort's pet python Nagini during the final throw down.

Of the secondary players, Alan Rickman may seem too low-key here for some people but I believe the plot revelations puts his performance during the entire series into perspective.  I think his approach is absolutely perfect, since Snape is practically dead inside at this stage in the game.  When a Pensieve flashback reveals more about his relationship with Harry's parents, the character's supremely tragic nature becomes apparent.  It's an eerily prescient performance and one has to wonder if Rickman was privy to some of Rowling's trade secrets right from the start.

I'm also pleased to see the delightfully cranky Maggie Smith return As Minerva McGonagall for a few precious scenes.  I couldn't help but share her child-like glee as she brought the castle's stone guardians to life.  "I always wanted to cast that spell," she giddily confesses to Molly Weasley as the knights leap off the walls and march towards the front line.                  

They also manage to get Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon back in an Obi-Wan Kenobi/Architect from The Matrix capacity.  In his preciously short screen time he manages to encompass an incredible range of emotions: weariness, trepidation, sorrow and guilt.  You get the sense that he's made a supreme sacrifice that still may prove to be foolhardy.  Above all, you get the impression that his conscience is still in turmoil over  the burden his plan has placed on Harry.  It's an incredibly heartfelt showing and is sure to reduce fans to a blithering mess.

Steps have clearly been taken to ensure that the film's special effects are especially effective.  The physical sets and real locations blend seamlessly with the CGI, adding a tremendous amount of  authenticity to the picture.  Yates's action sequences are appropriately chaotic and don't seem to suffer as much from his obsession with Band of Brother's-style combat photography which plagued Part I.

I can criticize the lack of character development here, but, honestly, this entire film is designed to be one big-assed, epic story climax.  We've had seven previous films to enjoy the quiet moments of dialogue, but knowing that this is the last film ever (and Part I was so substantial in comparison), you can't help but feel a bit hollow when the final credits roll.

If the film can be slighted at it's because it could never live up to the spectacle generated by the greatest magic of all: the reader's imagination.  Compared to how all of us visualized the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, seeing one version of it etched into celluloid makes it come across as workmanlike, disjointed and underwhelming.  Sure, the story beats are all there, but there's no chance to dwell on the revelations, be saddened by the casualties or be dazzled by the wonder.  Sadly, there still hasn't been a scene which eclipsed Harry's magical griffon ride in Prisoner of Azkaban, which is still, in my humble opinion, the penultimate Potter flick.        

Having picked a few nits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II is still a rousing and more than adequate finale to the series.  I'm particularly pleased that the film-makers found a way to do justice to the "19 years later" epilogue that caps the book.  It really gives the viewer a sense of how many stories can still be told in the Potterverse.  If she ever gets strapped for cash (which is about as likely as the Queen taking up a paper route), J.K. Rowling can always tackle Hogwarts: The Next Generation.

And frankly I'd probably be standing towards the front of the line for my copy of the book and, subsequently, my inevitable movie ticket.

    Tilt: down.



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