HARRY POTTER AND THE ____________
Directed by Chris Columbus (1-2), Alfonso Cuaron (3), Mark Newell (4), and David Yates (5-8)
Written by Steve Klove (1-4, 6-8) and Michael Goldenburg (5) (based on the novels by J.K. Rowling)
With the population of Britain—Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasly), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Richard Harris (Prof. Albus Dumbledore, vol. 1), Michael Gambon (Prof. Albus Dumbledore, vol. 2), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Alan Rickman (Prof. Severus Snape), Kenneth Branagh (Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), David Thewlis (Prof. Remus Lupin), Brendon Gleeson (Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody), Jim Broadbent (Prof. Horace Slughorn), Timothy Spall (Wormtail), Maggie Smith (Prof. Minerva MacGonacle), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Warwick Davis (various), and Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort)
Spoiler alert: I'm trying to keep it at moderate—God alone knows whom for—but it will unavoidably slip into high in regards the later films
Continued from Part I
...AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2006)
The Ministry of Magic refuses to believe Harry and Dumbledore's reports of Voldemort's return, which is kind of insane, but it drives the plot. Thus Harry organizes a militia. Meanwhile, the Ministry cracks down on Hogwarts as a den of subversives. Things get worse before they get better, and then they get worse again.
Actually, now things get really good—for the duration of this film, anyway. (Guess what? I could have just watched this and Goblet and known who Sirius Black was, without the slightest reference to Azkaban, thankyouverymuch.)
Anyway, first things first: Phoenix is by far the best-looking of the Potter films. It's an improvement over the pretty great-looking Fire and the handsome Secrets; it is visionary in comparison to Stone and Azkaban; and it even manages to handily best the next three installments, all of which are rather beautiful. Slawomir Idziak splits the difference well between fantasy spectacle and horror (director David Yates and his editors help). One half-wishes that he would have remained with Yates till the end, but I'm happy enough that this one truly stunning Potter film exists.
Not that Idziak deserves all, or maybe even most, of the credit (we'll pick up the "which is better photographed" discussion later). For the first time in a while, Stuart Craig gets to design some new giant sets, and they are probably the best of his career, as they would be the best in just about anyone's career. Here, we get to see the headquarters of Wizard England's governing body, the Ministry of Magic. It's just amazing: the Ministry's common areas are enormous spaces defined by glossy green-black brick that make it feel far more claustrophobic than it actually is, while also evoking a weird, Art Deco bureaucratic style that seems to belong to a different age that never was. The Ministry is also home to a giant warehouse of bottle prophecies—glass spheres stacked high into black, depthless space. These are not just cool sets. They're the locations of enormous magical fights between Voldemort's army and the kids... and between adult wizards and witches on both sides—in other words, living gods. Phoenix retools the wizards' "apparition" and "disapparition" spells (that's fancy Rowlingspeak for teleportation) into a gorgeous cinematic visual, columns of black and white smoke that carry wizards and witches into the air and, should they choose, straight through solid objects with the destructive force of a missile. All the elements for the best fight in the whole series are here: great new imagery; great old imagery, in the form of that ingenious steel-smelting pyrotechnic look given to high-test wand duels by Newell in Fire; interestingly destructible environments; and, of course, high narrative stakes. It all culminates in a pitched battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore that is so fucking cool, and so full of "Now that's real magic," that of course it ends far, far too soon, and is never recapitulated, because Harry Fucking Potter is the Chosen Fucking One. (P.S., Harry, you're wrong about Voldemort being lonely. He has tons of friends. Do you have anybody willing to cut off their arm for you? No. You do not. Because Ron secretly hates you.)
Phoenix is likewise where things really get going, narratively (only ten full hours into the franchise!). But before we can deal with Voldemort and his minions, we have Dolores Umbridge, the pink-clad crypto-fascist—and, actually, that is perfectly okay. Umbridge is conjured into existence by Imelda Staunton, who does Helen Lovejoy as possessed by Satan (and who is also British). She's nearly as cartoonishly broad as Branagh, but she bends toward cruelty rather than slapstick, and it utterly works: for now we have entered what amounts to a high fantasy about wizards and witches with barely any reference to the Muggle world, at least beyond Voldemort's explicit modeling upon Adolf Hitler and his hatred of impure blood. Not everything about the police state she's wrought upon Hogwarts totally works—why Harry and his band of revolutionaries don't resort to force is frankly beyond me, and can only be explained by his failure of nerve—but Staunton's performance is a towering exemplar of evil, surpassed here only by Ralph Fiennes himself. Of course, his nose fell off, whereas she's just a crazy woman with a collection of plates with cats on them—actually, maybe she is scarier. Umbridge's story is only mildly undermined when we learn two films on that she wasn't lynched to death by centaurs. (Phoenix is good enough that I wasn't even annoyed by the appearance of that giant in the woods, for no good reason, along with the centaurs who hadn't been seen since the first film—yes, Phoenix does have yet another deus ex machina, but at least it doesn't manifest in the climax itself!)
Phoenix also introduces Luna Lovegood, who by the simple virtue of being consistently endearing and entertaining is readily my favorite child character in the series.
Evidently, huge chunks of the novel were disposed of to make the longest book the shortest movie before the bifurcated finale, and it pays off handsomely. Phoenix is, by far, the tightest, most comprehensible film in the entire series. Arguably, it is the only one that is mostly well-written—it may not be a coincidence that the series' regular screenwriter Steve Klove had taken a break and Michael Goldenburg penned this one, and only this one. But, whatever the reason, Phoenix works very well, standing head and shoulders above its strongest competitors as the best Harry Potter movie of them all. That doesn't mean it's anywhere close to great, but, for this franchise, strongly entertaining is a superlative indeed.
...AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
Voldemort and his Death Eaters scheme up a magical coup d'etat against Dumbledore, and take Draco Malfoy as their inside man.
Apropos of nothing, Michael Gambon is my favorite Dumbledore. This is totally unfair to Richard Harris, who had next to nothing to do in this series other than exposit, exposit, and exposit some more, while he was still alive. But life ain't fair; death less so. See, Gambon has a way of being warm and wise and manipulative and cruel at the same time. Once it all comes together in the end, it seems pretty perfect.
Director David Yates would stay with the Harry Potter series through its conclusion, and despite the ever-changing guard of cinematographers, he imposed a pretty consistent vision. It's kind of grimdark, actually, but never entirely humorless, and always aware of what is cool and what is not. Now, Yates could not necessarily control whether uncool elements would enter his movies—much that was objectively uncool would wind up being regurgitated upon the screen—but he seemed to always do his best to maximize the interesting at the expense of the lame. Prince is a hard one, however, because it focuses a great deal upon our old unfriend Draco Malfoy, who (with the exception of one gratifying curb stomp) is still pooping his pants like a little baby six full films into this series, rather than maturing into the terrific villain he always ought to have been on the inside even when he didn't have the physical force to externalize that delicious anger, that delectable envy, and all those generalized daddy issues. Oh well. (Maybe in this regard the books are better, but in the films Draco is simply weakness personified, the single most unappealing character in the whole franchise, including Harry "Let's All Make-Pretend That I Have Inner Conflict" Potter himself.)
And maybe I should walk back my praise of Yates, since one of the first scenes in Prince is about the uncoolest way to do a cool thing possible. Throughout this series, Severus Snape has been implicated in glimpses and glances as a villain, to the extent that by Year 6, yes, we know, he is a villain. Ultimately, Snape winds up one of the most interesting characters in the whole series; but the reveal of his allegiance in Prince is comically perfunctory. Alan Rickman's first line in Prince may have been "can you pass me the magic coffee that I'm sure J.K. Rowling has a fascinating name and backstory for?", but I wouldn't know. Whatever his first line was, I didn't quite catch it, because in no way was I prepared for Snape to simply be sitting in a chair reading a newspaper in another Death Eater's house. Well, at least there's some symmetry to the other revelation about Snape we get here, in the film's climax: that one's pretty laid-back too.
(Still, small hiccups are nothing compared to the gaping flesh wounds of the Harry Potter series. Such as: why does Voldemort care precisely who kills Harry Potter? And couldn't they at least have subdued and kidnapped him, when Voldemort has a burning requirement to kill this kid? Seriously, why do the Death Eaters let him go?)
Prince is the opening salvo in the existential war against Voldemort, chronicling the days when everything finally and irrevocably slid into shit. Thus it is possessed of a sub-Empire Strikes Back "all is lost" quality, particularly in its brutal ending. In fact, the brutal ending lifts from Star Wars so unabashedly that you can almost see Alec Guinness standing there instead, turning off his lightsaber. Nonetheless, far be it from me to deny that it works. Before that, though, we get the usual "this is all supposed to be taking place over a whole year" thing that the Harry Potter movies always try to bully you into believing, but haven't succeeded at till here. Thank cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who actually gets the concept of "seasons"—or, at least, the seasons "autumn" and "winter." As pretty as Phoenix was in its unequalled set-pieces, Prince is probably the better-shot in general: Delbonnel captures the mood flawlessly, and he has a wonderfully pictorial style that seems to make people glow with their own light, altogether fitting for a series about wizards and witches. As for those seasons, Delbonnel may be the preeminent expert on how to communicate environmental coldness in the business. (You can see from Prince why the Coens tapped him for Inside Llewyn Davis.) There's also some wonderful green-filtered sequences that do "immediately-recognizable, stylistically-vibrant flashback" better than even the color/black-and-white hybridization in Secrets.
Stealing the show whenever he's onscreen is Jim Broadbent, always welcome wherever he shows his face, as a starfucking professor with a secret, taking over Potions from Snape. (Prince has the honor of being the only Potter film that made me laugh twice: the more obvious joke scene is a funeral for a spider—just take my word for it that it makes sense—that is played so completely straight that it burrows through to become completely ridiculous; but the other, even better joke, is the matter-of-fact announcement that Snape, having just made an unbreakable vow to help the Death Eaters, is taking over the vacant position of
It's a good entry in the series, and at this point the quality level has become such that I was certain that I'd wind up half-loving the franchise as a whole—if for no other reason, the sheer confidence with which it presents its own story. I'd become, it seems, accustomed to its face. Its gorgeous, noseless face.
Turns out Voldemort's soul inhabits not his body but seven magical items. Destroy them, destroy the Dark Lord.
The Deathly Hallows has a lot to answer for, by beginning the trend of splitting last books in a series in half in order to double ticket sales, but let's just treat these two films as one, and deny them their cash-grabbing gambit.
To begin with, what the fuck is this? Suddenly, we are witness to the emergence of what seems like actual personalities in the kids. (A confession: I have a weakness for impromptu dancing scenes. I was told this wasn't in the book. My reply was, "Big surprise." It does more to characterize Harry and Hermione than their previous 15.5 hours of dialogue.) I do not know if Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint had simply grown up enough by 2010 to reinvest wholly in their work, or what, but handicapping them for their limitations as performers, they're giving their best efforts in the whole series. ("Best" does not in any sense equal "great.") Either way, it's a good thing, since Hallows hangs on them and no one else, especially Part I, which is less about plot—it's almost not about plot—than it is about mood. Long stretches are dedicated to Harry and Pals living rough in a forest. There is one shot that so vividly evokes life during wartime, that it counts amongst my favorite images in the series. It's a simple shot, of a Death Eater apparating, miles up, streaking across the gray sky.
Eventually, some semblance of a plot comes together—seeking out Voldemort's magical soul containers. To this end, they engage in a miniature heist film. Actually, there's a earlier bit with a locket that cribs terribly from LOTR and makes, I think, absolutely no sense. But the heist works rather well, particularly through the use of a transformation spell that finally gives Helena Bonham Carter something to do in this series other than cackle stereotypically. It's arguably the series' single best performance, that sees Bonham Carter annihilating poor Emma Watson—see, Hermione is pretending to be Bellatrix Lestrange, a high party member of Voldemort's, and Bonham Carter is so good at replicating Watson's tics and the general obviousness of her acting, that for a few minutes I thought it was actually Watson in a Bonham Carter wig.
Part I also offers a totally divergent exercise in style, and a nearly-unprecedented example in the Potter series of exposition actually being interesting in its own right: a highly-stylized animated fairy tale that relates exactly what these "deathly hallows" are all about, and which made me tell my girlfriend, right to her Potter-loving face, "Why couldn't the whole series be this awesome and fun and interesting?"
On the other hand, Hallows Part I also indulges in the exact same kind of feckless crap that's always bothered me about the Potter series. I thought Yates had worked this out in Prince, but even as late as the final two chapters, Harry Potter is still fucking with me: an enormously important event—the takeover of the Ministry of Magic by Voldemort, tantamount to winning Wizards' War II—happens offscreen and is related in a tossed-off line so easy-to-miss that I had to be brought up to speed by the time it mattered, in what was technically the next film.
There's more to hate on in Part II, when the war returns to Hogwarts and the film becomes pretty much explicitly apocalyptic.
Let's list what I did not like: I did not like a battle scene that forgot the Death Eaters could fucking fly and therefore were not obliged to cross a bridge; I did not like that Draco Malfoy is even more of a joke in this one; I sort of hated the untidiness of Harry's final fate; and I definitely did not like the structural hash that Harry's final fate makes of the last thirty minutes, when it could have been so simple, clean, direct, and amazing that I wish Rowling weren't considered a god in fan circles, so that Klove could have given the Potter series the ending it deserved, as dark and somber as its pretensions. (As for the convolutions surrounding the Elder Wand, I'm conflicted: they drive some great moments, but the issue of wand ownership is so hopelessly complex we may need to hire a law firm to establish who holds the title to it.)
But it's more than counterbalanced by the good in Hallows, not least the vastly increased presence of Voldemort himself, but above all the frankly mind-bending revelation about Harry's true nature that, it must be said, comes so late in this series that it is almost annoying to have 20 hours of inconsistent plotting suddenly seem to make a lot more sense. If it was handled in a way that only the most zealous, rules-lawyering fans can justify the failure of Voldemort's death curse to do its job—well, I certainly could complain, but no one would listen.
All in all, it is a more than satisfying conclusion to a long, long cycle, that would have been far better had it been far shorter, but whose creation of a fathomless universe of magic probably had something to do with the genuine fondness that grew slowly in my heart, and took me by surprise when I realized I had it. I doubt I'll ever become ecstatically obsessed with this nonsense, the way a younger me dug into Star Trek or the Marvel or DC universes—maybe that's a younger man's game, anyway, a kid's game—but I liked it. I have a weakness for endings—I will almost always value the ending over the middle—which is why I'm the only person you'll ever see say Jedi is better than Empire. Hallows, taken together as a single unit, still isn't my favorite entry in the Potter series, but by the strength of some of its moments—and above all the strength of its finality—it is my second.
Score: 6/10, jointly and severally
3. Hallows, Part I
2. Hallows, Part II
Bottom five moments:
5. Vernon Dursley's inexplicable recalcitrance in letting his hated foster son go to Hogwarts, in Stone, Secrets, Azkaban, and I think it happens in Fire too
4. The plot-convenient goblin in the dungeon in Hallows, Part I, resuscitating Secrets' tabletop gaming-inflected plotting in the worst way
3. The name "Remus Lupin" in Azkaban
2. Neville Longbottom's name also sucks, but what sucks more is his dumb plan to kill Death Eaters in Hallows, Part II, which only works because Steve Klove demands it works, and which is buttoned by a direct visual quote from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, because that's what the conclusion of your eight-film epic needs, obvious lifts from other films that make you wish you were watching something that cool instead
1. Harry doesn't die, in Hallows, Part II
Top five moments:
5. The animated Tale of the Deathly Hallows in Hallows, Part I
4. Branagh seeing Branagh seeing Branagh in Secrets
3. Voldemort's resurrection in Fire
2. But Harry does die, in Hallows, Part II
1. Voldemort telekinetically hurling shattered glass at Dumbledore, who uses logically satisfying and powerful magic to transmute the shards into harmless sand, in Phoenix
"Why can't the whole series be this awesome and fun and interesting?" That is, in fact, something I said a lot throughout this journey. That is Harry Potter, after all: a lot of little good ideas encased, practically mummified at times, by never-ending, slogging minutia. Still... it has a strength to it, a perseverance to it, and, maybe most importantly, a palpable love within it, for those who also love it. That's not nothing, and I'm glad I saw this.