Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Harry Potter" Review-A-Palooza by David Pretty

Greetings, all you Hufflepuffians, Slytherites, Ravenclaw-ers and Griffindorians!

In honor of the release of Deathly Hallows Part II in theaters, I've taken it upon myself to view and then review every one of the Potter pictures to date. So grab your invisible cloaks and hop on your broomsticks, wizards and witches, it's gonna be an epic journey!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone                 Release Date:  November 16, 2001

I can certainly understand J.K. Rowling's trepidations in turning her brainchild over to greed-motivated Hollywood-types but the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone really takes protectionism to extremes. The picture is so slavishly devoted to trying to capture all the nuances of the original novel's mise-en-scène that it could be interpreted as alternately dull and confusing for those first venturing into her world.

There's a smattering of scenes that could easily have been excised just because they don't serve the story in the least. The film is also somewhat restrained by the stylistically vacant direction of Chris Columbus. For such a visual tale, many of his set-ups are workmanlike and shot like a made for T.V. movie.

Having said that, the producers get a few thing dead-on. The cast is uniformly amazing and the kids have actually supplanted my mental image for the characters whenever I revisit the books. Their performances are pretty "embryonic" at this stage, but you can certainly sense a ridiculous amount of potential.

Alan Rickman, although flawlessly cast, seems like he's sleepwalking a bit. On the other hand Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane are both a blast to watch and the late, great Richard Harris makes for a dignified and authoritative Dumbledore.

The sets, costumes, props and effects are all generally solid but the CGI is pretty weak, especially in the Quidditch and Troll scenes.

All told, the film seems half-baked and too much a slave to the original source material. Anyone looking to venture into the colorful world of Hogwarts would be much better served reading the original book, especially for Rowling's delightful language. But like Harry's magical abilities, you get the impression that the films are destined to get better and better at their craft.

 Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets                     Release date: November 15, 2002

Chamber of Secrets sees a noticeable improvement over its predecessor thanks to one important element: confidence. The cast, and especially the kids, seem considerably more self-assured in their roles. 

We're also treated to a few stellar additions to the roster, notably the ultra-smarmy Kenneth Branagh as media whore Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs bringing a real sense of menace to the proceedings as Draco's nefarious father Lucius Malfoy. 

Seeing an improvement across the board, Chris Columbus finally decides to move the camera around a little bit, crafting a film with considerably more visual flair. Mercifully, the CGI has also improved by leaps and bounds, with the character of Dobby as realistic a creation as Gollum from Lord of the Rings

The only main criticism I can level at Chamber of Secrets is that it's still guilty of the same obsession with cramming in as many colorful tidbits from the original book to the detriment of diving the plot ahead. The story itself is also not the strongest of the series and we have to wait for Prisoner of Azkaban to get into the really meaty stuff.  Still, a marked improvement over Philosopher's Stone and its course bodes well for future entries.    

P.S. The producers of the film series get a major demerit for throwing over renowned artist Drew Struzan's amazing poster art from the first film for Chamber's terrible-looking Photoshopped abomination and all that followed.  For shame!

    Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban                          Release Date: June 4, 2004

Finally the Potter flicks get a director who realizes that film is a visual medium. Alfonso Cuaron was the perfect match for Rowling's books if only due to the sheer artistry he brings to the screen. For the first time ever the geography around Hog... (read more) Finally the Potter flicks get a director who realizes that film is a visual medium! 

Alfonso Cuaron was the perfect match for Rowling's books if only due to the sheer artistry he brought to the screen.  For the first time ever the geography around Hogwarts seems so real and immersive the audience actually begins to feel like one of the students. 

The director of such sexually aware films as Y tu mamá también also can't help but inject some cheeky subtext in the film which sees Harry secretly practicing magic under the bedcovers and Professor Lupin's thinly-veiled reason for being dismissed because parents wouldn't want their children to be taught by "someone like him." 

There are moments in the film that actually inspire wonder in the audience. Buckbeak and Harry's flight above the lake belongs in the same pantheon as Lois and Clark's cruise over Metropolis in Superman. Cuaron is also blessed with helming the most tightly-plotted of all the Potter books and Prisoner of Azkaban is rife with great revelations and intriguing plot twists. 

We also get a few tremendous additions to the cast including Emma Thompson as the dotty Sybil Trelawney, Gary Oldman as the motivationally mysterious Sirius Black and David Thewlis' sympathetic turn as the unfortunately named Professor Lupin. 

On a bittersweet note, the role of Dumbledore passed to Michael Gambon since Richard Harris died in 2002. Wisely, Gambon took a bold new approach to the part, moving away from Harris' quiet, authoritative, dignified portrayal to something considerably livelier and more mischievous. 

Finally, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are now in firm possession of their roles and really seem to be having fun with the film's more mature themes. I believe this is the best of the Potter film adaptations and each subsequent viewing never fails to reveal more of its magic. 

        Tilt: up. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire                              Release date:  November 18, 2005

It's with "Goblet of Fire" that the efforts of directors to adapt the books become increasingly difficult. At a whopping six hundred and thirty six pages, "GOF" feels alternately protracted and rushed. It's really noticeable in the way the charact... (read more) It's with Goblet of Fire that the efforts of directors to adapt the books become increasingly more Herculean. At a whopping six hundred and thirty six pages, Goblet often feels alternately truncated and rushed. 

It's really noticeable in the way the character of Cedric Diggory is handled. We have ample time to get to know and like him in the book but here the producers barely have enough screen time to characterize him as Harry's annoying foil.  In his defense, director Mike Newell had a lot of ground to cover but managed to make time for some fun, quiet, introspective moments. 

Radcliffe, Watson and Grint are in fine form here, really running with the scenes that are rife with teen angst and comedy. The "Who's-Who Roster of Modern Cinema's Best Actors to Appear in a Potter Flick" continues to grow as Robbie Coltrane is added to the cast as "Mad Eye" Moody.  David Tennant comes on board as well as Barty Crouch Jr. but I find his performance a bit too "Snidely Whiplash" to take seriously.  This is counterbalanced with the first appearance of Ralph Fiennes as the re-incarnated Voldemort and he drips menace for every precious second of screen time he's given. 

There's plenty of spectacle here as well, with Harry's "fight or flight" battle with a dragon being one of the film's best set pieces.  Goblet of Fire isn't as tight as some of the other film entries but it does depict a few major plot points in the saga and gives us plenty of character development to keep us entertained. 

    Tilt: up.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix                 Release date:   July 11, 2007 

New director David Yates brings the appropriate amount of character exploration and dark gravitas to his adaptation of Order of the Phoenix. Above all, the film benefits tremendously from the presence of Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge, perhaps the most reviled character in the Potter-verse and one of the greatest cinema villains ever.  Indeed, the cast reads like a "who's who" of my favorite actors and the kids are continuing to come into their own quite nicely.  

To pare the film down to a sane running time, huge elements of the book had to be jettisoned, sometimes requiring a bit of creative patchwork storytelling. Some of the losses are quite painful, however.  For example, it's a minor crime that Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley doesn't get an opportunity to bolster is confidence on the Quidditch pitch, but since it doesn't serve the main plot, the reason it was dropped is pretty obvious.   

Taken altogether, it's an unfairly maligned entry in the series that does it's best adapting the longest and densest of the Potter novels by getting right to the heart of Harry's character arc.  

Tilt: down.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince                             Release date: 15 July 2009

Although not a longer book than "Goblet of Fire" or "Order of the Phoenix", "Half-Blood Prince" is one of the denser tomes from J.K. Rowling's beloved series. As such, this one seems very truncated, almost like a "Cliff's Notes" version of of the or... read more Although not a longer book than Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is one of the denser tomes from J.K. Rowling's beloved series. As such, this one also feels pretty truncated, almost like a "Cliff's Notes" version of of the original novel. Half way through the film, it starts to fly around in all directions. 

Over the course of a 600-page book, the story has ample opportunity to flow and evolve naturally but with a movie that's only two-and-a-half hours long, suddenly everything seems a bit random and staccato. Gone are the reasonably adaptable and succinct stories like Prisoner of Azkaban and director David Yates is forced to contend with increasingly dense and dark material. 

Anyone expecting the freshly-scrubbed whimsy of the first two films will be sorely disappointed.  With one more book to adapt the producers are getting into the 11'th inning and some heavy stuff transpires here. Ultimately, this is what allows the film to succeed, despite it's occasional convolutions. 

The kids are all increasingly fantastic. Daniel Radcliffe gets some great scenes, particularly while under the intoxicating effects of a luck potion. Rupert Grint continues to prove he's got impeccable comedic timing and Emma Watson brings increasing amounts of heart and soul to the role of Hermione. 

Tom Felton's emerging villain Draco Malfoy must be mentioned and you really get the sense that his dastardly deeds in the previous films were mainly the result of self-loathing.  Now, when his hand is forced, he's truly conflicted and generates a lot of pathos amongst the viewer. Also Alan Rickman gets more time to shine, which automatically translates in 20% more awesome for the film. Evanna Lynch's burgeoning role is also welcome, since her Luna Lovegood is pure spacey genius. 

Of all the minor characters, the one that really shows the most change is Michael Gambon's Dumbledore. He is completely altered by the dire events in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix and comes across as distressingly sober and a touch frightened by what's to come. This weighs very heavily on the mind of the audience since we know that if Dumbledore is worried then some bad shit is definitely imminent!

I continue to be relieved that the franchise is in Yates's capable hands and he keeps striking an appropriate tone for these latter films. He knows he's getting into deep waters and gives credence to the dark scenes when appropriate but also punches up opportunities for humor to let us off the hook. 

In fact, when I first heard that Half-Blood Prince was the "funniest" of the recent movies and I was afraid they were going to undercut the drama. Having seen it several times now I can say that, despite some moments of genuine levity, the tone is spot-on.  Best still, Yates gives us a full-bodied visual style and composes some great shots like Harry's arrival at the Weasley homestead and Harry and Dumbledore's creepy spelunking venture. 

Some may gripe that the pitch-battle ending of the book was pared down, but I think this would have seriously compromised the "surgical strike" nature of the attack and also overshadowed the very shocking personal confrontation amongst the major players. Although the film's dense plotting is kind of an albatross around it's neck, I also believe that this will increase it's repeat viewing appeal in the long run. 

 Tilt: down.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1           Release date: November 18, 2010

Fans of this series will appreciate the time director David Yeats is allotted in adapting the final book of the "Harry Potter" cycle. It could be argued that "Order of the Phoenix" and "Goblet of Fire" were no less worthy of the "divide and conquer... read mFans of this series will appreciate the time director David Yeats is allotted in adapting the final book of the Harry Potter cycle. It could be argued that Order of the Phoenix and Goblet of Fire were no less deserving of the "divide and conquer" strategy.  In fact, it may be sacrilege, but I think the entire saga might have been better rendered as an ambitious seven-season series on AMC. 

My main problem with Deathly Hollows Part I is the same issue I had with the first half of the book from which it's based: the story line sustained over the 150 minute run time is hardly what I'd describe as "propulsive".  People who don't know a Muggle from a Mudblood will likely be in for a rough go of it. As someone who's ravenously consumed the original books and doesn't mind routinely revisiting the previous installments on Blu-Ray, I'm quite happy with the results.

In this adaptation the Hogwart's patriarch Dumbledore can no longer help his young allies and the forces of darkness led by a fully-reconstituted Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) are usurping control over the Ministry of Magic.  They're also trying to snuff out Harry, still the only one to have survived a confrontation with the Dark Lord. Our beloved triumvirate including the The Boy Who Lived himself (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are forced underground to try and keep Harry from being perforated.  All the while, the trio is attempting to secure and destroy the Horcurxes, in which Vodemort has interred fragments of his own soul for safekeeping.

Large tracts of screen time then follow involving strategy sessions, trekking and hiding in the wilderness, cloak and dagger subterfuge, seeking answers to secrets, playing out discord amongst the heroes, and attempts to navigate periodically around clunky patches of mystery and lore. There's a lot going on here and sometimes it's spellbinding (like when the polymorphed kids infiltrate the Ministry of Magicl in disguise) and sometimes it's painfully turgid (the seemingly-endless monochromatic camping trip springs to mind).

Some mysterious side-steps come our way but they're piled on with baffling frequency and ultimately we're just asked to file them away for the REAL conclusion in Part II. We're told that mysterious gifts, odd symbols, the sudden emergence of Luna Lovegood's father, a strange old acquaintance of Dumbledore's and the Deathly Hollows themselves all have relevance, but since we're getting only half the story here, none of it really pays off.

Still, there are plenty of things to admire. Director David Yates continues to make mature and distinctive marks on the franchise. While his visual eye usually seems to stylistically fall somewhere between Alfonso Cuaron's Azkaban and Mike Newell's Goblet, he does make a few miss-steps. The worst is probably the unfortunate choice to shoot some of the pursuit scenes with an over-reliance on Saving Private Ryan-style combat photography, Slap-Chop editing, audio bombast and extreme close ups, all of which give the viewer the impression that Michael Bay did some second unit work.

He more than makes up for it, though, by giving us plenty of low-key, almost throwaway character touches, some well-timed moments of humor and an almost cinema-verite approach to wielding his camera. He also deserves praise for having enough faith in his audience to slow the film down to a crawl to simulate the difficulty, frustration and isolation that our heroes experience as they fail to locate the Horcruxes.

The villains also finally get a chance to shine. Ralph Fiennes is genuinely sinister and repellent as Voldemort. Although nearly anonymous under pounds of makeup, he still paints a masterful portrait of degenerate evil just with body language and superb line delivery. The woefully underused Helena Bonham-Carter also steals every scene she's in as Bellatrix Lestrange. Whenever she's onscreen it's impossible not to watch her slinky petulance or completely convincing turns to barking lunacy.

Fans of the series will also geek out watching the story come full-circle and familiar faces like Frances de la Tour as Olympe Maxime, John Hurt as Ollivander, Clemence Poesy as Fleur Delacour, Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge and Dobby as, um...Dobby all re-emerge in some capacity.

And, of course, I can't close this out without stressing how effortlessly the charismatic troika of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint carry this film. Daniel commands real gravitas now, Rupert's "Aw-shucks" grin is always contagious and Emma is now the master of the most potent spell of all: the hairy eyeball.  

The Deathly Hallows Part I is a tough road to hoe. It's job setting up the story's spectacular finale is a bit thankless but it exceeds expectations and seems committed in it's quest to be something sunstantial all by itself. 

Tilt: up.

Coming soon: a review for the final Harry Potter film:  Deathly Hallows Part II!

No comments:

Post a Comment