Thursday, November 10, 2011

HARRY POTTER In Review

Note: This piece contains a very small number of spoilers. Most are in the third paragraph, including the ultimate fate of a major character. Consider yourself warned.

One of the most remarkable and consistent feats of adaptation film has ever seen, J.K. Rowling’s magical Harry Potter novels have, under the decade-long watch of producer David Heyman, the pen of David Yates, the production design of Stuart Craig, and a rotating collection of talented directors, created a film franchise that is truly top-notch. Though there are definite qualitative differences between the individual installments, cumulatively the Harry Potter series is one of the finest exercises in long-form blockbuster storytelling ever. The whole sweep of the series is impressive in its ability to remain so compelling and entertaining with such a high unity and stability of vision, intelligence, and artistry. It’s a cheeky, creepy boarding school drama that contains an epic battle of good versus evil. But the greatest aspect of it all is how the series grew so poignantly into a metaphor for growing up. Aging with its characters, as well as its fans, the series found some of its most moving moments organically through the passage of time.

Now that it has reached a fitting and satisfying conclusion – the final film hits Blu-ray and DVD this Friday – there is a feeling that a rarity has come to an end. I’m going to take this opportunity to look back at the series by excerpting my reviews of all eight films, appending an entirely subjective, subject to shift, and wholly arbitrary ranking designating my order of preference (1 – 8, with 1 being my favorite, though past the first few on my list, the ranking becomes painfully difficult and nearly impossible).

But first, just a few words about Alan Rickman, who has been so good in these films that he could have won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar six or seven times. Severus Snape begins as a snaky, slimy character that becomes a seemingly untrustworthy character of great menace but, ultimately, great nobility. He’s a tragic figure. He’s the teacher the students are afraid of who nonetheless grows sympathetic the more we learn of him. Rickman brings the character to life with a droll, dry delivery that allows him to slither out his lines in creepy sibilance, filled with pregnant pauses and deliberate shifts of his eyes. He finds ways to fit new commas, syllables, and ellipses in every line. Yet he’s also capable of becoming animated and urgent with a hushed, tightly controlled energy. He’s a delight every second he appears, even when that delight is mixed with loathing. No other death in the finale moved me as much as Snape’s. What a great character. What a great performance.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Director Chris Columbus directs with a crisp storybook style that’s rather unremarkable but has the benefit of showing off the resplendent production design…This is the first time the camera has shown us the accoutrements of this world, a vivid and imaginative world that has rightfully taken its place among the greatest fantasy settings in cinema history…This film has a childlike sense of wonder at its world, and also a more kid-friendly tone. As such, the story is slighter than the others to date; the pacing is a little awkward. What works in the book doesn’t always work on the screen. The filmmakers would gain confidence in later movies to bend and condense more than they did here…But still, I was enchanted with the imagination of the proceedings, the red-blooded adventure, the charm of the visuals (even the few effects that now – already – feel dated), and even the nostalgia that is already settling around the film, cloaking it with a protective layer of memory. There’s real magic here…” 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“Despite [the] expanding plot, the adaptation…makes slightly better sense of what to cut and what to keep when pruning the plot from book to film. The film plunges into the plot proper and moves much quicker than the first film. The puzzle-solving climax of the first has been replaced with a more satisfying action beat. These were the books’ climaxes too, but this one translates better to film. Unfortunately, the movie then takes too long a time to finally end, stalling through a slightly unnecessary dialogue scene and then dribbling into a puddle of sentimentality that doesn’t quite fit by excessively applauding a character (charming though he may be) that has been pushed to the sidelines for most of the plot.

But…the film is still an entertaining experience, faster, funnier, and creepier than the first, if ultimately a smidge less satisfying. Even though it repeats some mistakes and makes new ones, there is an admirable sense of growth and change shifting within the filmmaking, rare within franchises of this magnitude, fixing what was barely broken to begin with. This is an attitude that will serve the franchise well.” 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
“This is a deliriously detailed and tactile picture, packed with background information and scrupulous attention to every corner of the screen with grace notes of whimsy, like a tree shaking snow off of its branches, an aunt appearing in the background sky, and the camera floating (symbolically) twice through the gears of a clock. [Alfonso] Cuarón allows the camera a fluid grace to glide through the world, which is just as magical but has a greater realism in feeling and tone. This movie gets under my skin. The fantastical realism extends to the feelings of awakening adolescence within the young characters. Cuarón understands the yearning, the mystery, of aging and depicts the vivid mental states by understanding that magic does not make these kids any less like kids. One of the best scenes, and one of the simplest, involves a group of boys eating candy and joking with each other in a way any group of 13-year-olds might. The best effect of the film is the sound-effect accompanying a very satisfying punch thrown in the face of a bully.

Cuarón makes the fantasy a wild extrapolation on the characters' uneasy, awkward steps towards adulthood, finding the intrinsic link between basic human experiences and the phantasmagorical tales we tell…” 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
“This time under the direction of British director Mike Newell, the film is, like the others, perfect in craftsmanship but is the first in possession of a well-crafted feeling of momentum. It’s all climax, sustained for two-and-a-half hours, without ever feeling its length, constantly besting itself creating faster, scarier, and more exciting moments throughout enough set pieces to sustain a half-dozen lesser films…the movie tears from one moment to the next, always building, and never stalling… It moves so fast, while still retaining both clarity and breathing room, I could have watched for much longer. It’s also the most expansive, the most dynamic, and the most dangerously menacing of the first four films.” 3 Read more

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
“…the best new cast member in this installment is the new teacher who springs from Rowling’s writing to life: Dolores Umbridge, every horrible teacher you’ve ever had rolled into the worst teacher imaginable, a torturously warped Dahl-like figure of pleasant authoritarian cruelty. Imelda Staunton plays her to such heights of perfection that I still wish she’d gotten an Oscar nomination. (She’s also the inspiration for composer Nicholas Hooper, filling in for the still absent Williams, to create his best piece of music for the film, one that fits Williams established mood and orchestration perfectly). Watch the way she struts across Hogwarts, using spells to pull the student body closer towards her view of proper, which has long been hopelessly warped through years of bureaucratic training to be endlessly shortsighted. Watch the way the smile stays tremulously frozen on her face when confronted with the truth that doesn’t square up with what she is certain is true. And watch the way she pleasantly stirs her tea while torturing a student. And watch her smug satisfaction as she hangs increasingly Animal-Farm-style rules on a wall of the Great Hall.” 

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
“This is a film in no hurry, drunk on its own mood and tone. At first glance, that may seem like a backhanded compliment, and for a lesser movie it would be, but after so many hours of Potter films, I care about this world, these characters, and I feel a genuine swelling of happiness and familiarity in getting to spend more time here. It helps that the mood and tone are first-rate and evocative. We’re truly in horror territory at times, with long gliding shots down gloomy hallways, creepily distended tension, and even a few great jump moments. At other times, we’re in a great boarding-school melodrama, with easy comedy, moody students, shifting allegiances, and a sinister and strange faculty. This is a magical series indeed, with so much feeling and warmth consistently present amidst its shifting tones. The film feels of one piece, sending warm laughter and cold shivers in equal measure, sometimes shifting in seconds. (Look at the scene involving the love potion cure for an example). Near the film’s end, we are given one of the most elegantly moving scenes in the entire series, a scene that fills the screen with a soft light that, however briefly, chases away the encroaching clouds of darkness.” 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
“The filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been telling us that the decision to split the film into two parts was made with purely creative reasons, the better to faithfully reproduce J.K. Rowling’s text, but having seen Part 1 I can only think that the reason had to have been Warner Brothers’ desire to double their profits. This is a decision that has only hobbled the creativity… Like the first several hundred pages of the book, Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins to set up a finale. Just as those pages alone would not make a satisfying book, this is not a satisfying film. After the full story is complete, the film could look retroactively rosier, but as of right now the experience of seeing the film is more than a little tedious. This film can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, stand alone, but I wish it did a little more to stand out as something better than a mere mechanical set-up for the forthcoming resolution.” 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
“…the film moved me. It draws on the entire history of the franchise, using snippets of footage and music from past films in elegant flashback fashion that gain an added power through their mere reappearances. These are memories not just of a decade’s worth of incident in the lives of the characters, but a decade’s worth of memories for the audience as well. I grew older right alongside these kids. Now we’re all young adults. The filmmakers lucked into three wonderful children who happened to grow into wonderful actors. The whole sweep of the franchise has been about aging, about learning, about growing and changing. In a lovely epilogue we see that, though the immediate story of Harry Potter may have ended, the story of Hogwarts, the story of this magical world will continue, delighting the next generation just as it did their parents.” 

The story’s telling may be finished, but it will never truly end, not while there are children of all ages looking for movie magic in their lives. 

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