Monday, April 20, 2015
Ron's heartworm medication, part I
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
For someone with a putative interest in film—and, moreover, someone who takes a populist approach toward understanding the medium—it seems like I avoided this one as long as was humanly possible. Turns out I liked it, but let's be clear: it avoids greatness like the plague.
I've never read the books (I'm sure that's a shock to anyone who knows me). I doubt I ever shall, unless I wind up on a desert island and need 4000 pages or so to keep me company while I slowly go mad. Indeed, I am certain that misplaced fealty to J.K Rowling's set of enormously beloved and belovedly enormous kids' books is the very foundational problem of Harry Potter's whole cinematic enterprise. The most severe of its many severe issues is that they are yoked almost irrevocably to Harry Potter himself, and to a lesser degree to his ever-present hangers-on, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Harry presents as a plot device more often than a human, and of the other two, only Ron is genuinely interesting for the great bulk of the series. Even here, by "interesting," I actually mean "played at a level of intellect low enough that he can, at least, be reliably counted on to be amusing." This is not unalloyed praise here.
Meanwhile, vastly more compelling figures strut and flit on the margins while the Chosen One narrative we've decided to follow instead creaks forward, slowly and unsteadily. For someone who reputedly doesn't much cotton to Tolkien, there is a truly unfortunate amount of what amounts to Hobbit-centrism inherent to Rowling's creation.
But, of course, these are kids' adventures, and kids' adventure requires, well, kids. That's very fine, and the subgenre has achieved some of cinema's most enduring works. What I've been told by the Potterhead who induced me to go down this path in the first place—and it's a sentiment that I'm sure Potter-friendly readers will share—is that the books broaden and deepen the characterizations in a way the films never could. You misunderstand me, though. I did not want more; I wanted much, much less. Kids' adventure, overwatered, withers and dies: one may love their style, but no one wants to hang out with the Goonies for 20 hours. Here, almost half the franchise is spent opening up its universe and characterizations, and the result is all the air getting sucked out by the hard vacuum waiting outside. Damn it, I'm talking runtime, and I'm talking exposition—exposition atop exposition, which, at the end of day, still barely makes any sense... at best. With perhaps as many as five of the eight films rendered as companion pieces to the novels, rather than movies in their own right, fans may (or may not) have gotten all of what they wanted, but I wish they hadn't gotten half of what they did. For every moment that lands, there's another that doesn't—and another two that seem as if they're being related in a foreign language.
Tied together with the tedium of watching children slowly growing into teenagers amidst magical intrigue, like some kind of low fantasy, even-longer Boyhood, is the intermittent unpleasantness of watching child actors—seemingly cast solely on the basis of appearance, enthusiasm, and literacy—slowly growing into teenagers too. Often they're entirely fine; at other times, they seem resentful of their very participation; and they are never, ever great. Without wishing to blame anyone in particular, let's simply say that the scripts seem to go out of their way to saddle the lead trio with unplayable scenes, and the lead trio, sensibly, don't try too hard to play them. The series—in many respects a make-work project for British actors—is saved by its cavalcade of extraordinary adult performers. But that sword is double-edged: the godly work of Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, and Imelda Staunton (amongst so many others) makes the kids look even worse.
Yet at a point long after any other would-be franchise would have been killed stone dead, the Potter series found its footing. Like a phoenix (ha) rising from the ashes, it becomes a satisfying tale of magic and heroism and coming of age. And it's delivered by the visual stylings of some of the Oughts' finest craftspeople—which means some of the Tens' finest craftspeople, too. Worshipful appreciation is due Potter's stalwart production designer Stuart Craig, who stayed with the series throughout its run and who might be the franchise's single most important creative mind, after Rowling herself. Even at their crappiest, the thoughtfulness and skill of Craig's design keeps these movies watchable. In the series' latter half—the Yates Years—champion cinematographers Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca), Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Eduardo Serra (What Dreams May Come) offered each of their films a uniquely beautiful look.
These herculean efforts of aesthetic judgment leavened the films, and at some point I actually came to enjoy these things. Whether that's because they became good, or because I was beaten down over the course of a week by many hours of Daniel Radcliffe speak-shouting dialogue at me and Alan Rickman pausing weirdly in the middle of his sentences... well, I leave that to your judgment as a reader.
...AND THE SORCEROR'S STONE (2001)
A loser orphan turns out to be special. It's such a fresh take!
Stone is two and a half hours of exposition, random bullshit, and stale Britishisms followed by a climax that has to be carefully explained in order to make sense. You know, for the kids.
Actually, there's nothing really wrong with Stone that the brutal removal of an hour of footage wouldn't basically fix. But that hour's here to stay, and thus we have the inauguration of the Potter franchise's worst tradition, namely being absurdly long. This is a tradition that it eventually grew into, once it actually struck upon material that deserved any sort of epic-length treatment. But here, this is a movie about a kid being told, "You're a wizard, Harry!"—and that's pretty much it as far as plot goes, until very near the end—and somehow it's only five minutes shy of fucking Zodiac.
Virtually every scene requires tightening or excision. Unfortunately, Chris Columbus, stupidly indulgent toward the material, makes insane choices on what to give space: Harry's "relationship" with his aunt and uncle is frankly of less narrative importance than exploring which hand Harry uses for wiping his ass, but it would be a mighty shit indeed that lasts longer than it takes this tragicomic cartoon to finally and truly die upon the screen. They're horrible. We get it. Unfortunately, Harry's Muggle foster family will return. Again and again.
Since ineffectual, class-conscious villainy is apparently a requisite for any British fantasy, Harry's family is superceded by Draco Malfoy and his Slytherin gang: they are so inept at intimidation that it occurred to me halfway through the series that maybe it's Harry and his Gryffindor crew who comprise Hogwarts' jocks, whereas Slytherin represents Hogwarts' nerds rather than its preps, only they don't know it. That's why they're constantly asking for all the magical swirlies which Harry so generously provides. Anyway, Draco will also return, doing the exact same things while never growing as a character at all. He'll manage to do this for all eight installments, because the Potter movies are rotely formulaic and intensely enamored with their side characters if they're kids (a lot less so, if they're adults).
Speaking of rote formula, Stone is also our introduction to quidditch, the worst fake sport ever devised. Imagine football, but in each end zone a baseball player is trying to hit a home run, and should either one succeed, the football game still in progress is immediately over. I challenge you to give me a reason why anyone would want to watch (let alone participate in) this "game," and the reason cannot be "It was invented by J.K. Rowling." Like all the other bad pennies, quidditch just keeps turning up.
The impression I've probably given is that Stone is content to simply say "This exists, this exists, and this, too, exists"—well, I hope I did, because that is Stone's primary function. Love it or lump it, everything has got to be a thing in Harry Potter, and never more so than in Stone. The result is so terribly unfocused that it's painful, like watching a slide show of someone else's vacation.
But there are good parts. They're easy to identify, just outnumbered. First, I've already mentioned Stuart Craig. For all that Chris Columbus' vision of Hogwarts is simultaneously somehow both overwrought and perfunctory, Craig puts a lot of craft into Rowling's ideas. For example—if it's probably a mistake that, just because Rowling came up with the cool idea of having living paintings, every flat surface in the school should be covered with them till they stop seeming remotely special, Craig can't be blamed for executing this idea to the utmost. Second, at extreme length, You-Know-Who enters the picture—and if there is one rule that governs Harry Potter movies, it's that the more directly involved Voldermort is with anything, the better it invariably is. He manifests here with some surprisingly high-test body horror.
And it's ruined by a ludicrously nonsensical climax that is slowly and patiently explained to us kids in the audience ten minutes later, inagurating the Potter series' second-worst tradition, the garbage deus ex machina ending.
But this is the first appearance of Severus Snape, brought to life by Alan Rickman's delightful performance. Rickman prepared by spending six months hiding in restaurants and kindergartens and hospitals, where he meticulously cataloged his reaction to each possible permutation of the human fart. It's either that, or Daniel Radcliffe actually smells.
...AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)
In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter stumbles across a conspiracy to kill Muggle-born wizards and witches and has to solve several puzzles in order to get to the heart of it. Luckily, his invisible dead friend Tom Riddle is here to help.
According to IMDB (it only gets a 7.3!) and general scuttlebutt, this is the one that nobody likes. It doesn't have the novelty of Chris Columbus' first movie, while recapitulating many of its sins, and it doesn't have the coherence and drive that the David Yates films would finally lend to the franchise. Personally? I kind of like it. I'll try to relate why I found Secrets to be pretty decent, despite sticking to the Stone formula so thoroughly it may be the Die Harder of fantasy in its dedication to doing the exact same shit as the original for an established audience of fans.
Firstly, Secrets is much more self-contained, Stone having ineptly but sufficiently completed the unenviable task of setting up the massive Harry Potter universe; by the time Harry and Ron are adventuring with a flying car like the little shits all kids' adventure protagonists should be, I was already more into it than I ever was its predecessor. (However, this is also the one where the Potter series introduces J.K. Rowlings' great idea that Wizard England has legalized slavery in the form of "house elves," which is even better than her great idea about the "goblins" that control international finance. She only tops it much later, with her great idea for a "potions class" that teaches ninth graders how to synthesize rape drugs.)
Secondly, and inestimably more importantly, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor is Gilderoy Lockhart—and he is played by The Great Ham himself, Sir Kenneth Branagh. Lockhart is the hero of his own overheated imagination, the author of books relating his largely fabricated adventures, and he is—predictably—an inveterate coward in real life. Branagh doesn't go for nuance, or grace, and his is arguably the single broadest performance in a series packed to the straining rafters with British people going as theatrically huge as they can. He plays Lockhart as a true cartoon, wearing his yellow streak right on his pantsleg. He should be incapable of fooling anyone actually looking at him, yet somehow he fools everyone, because the script requires that he must. Embracing the paradox, Branagh singlehandedly manages to elevate Secrets into the whimsy-inebriated kids' adventure Stone never had the chance to be.
Yes, Branagh is just beautiful: the shot of Gilderoy beaming at a portrait of himself painting another portrait of himself (both of them also beaming) is very close to my favorite moment in the entire series. Certainly, it's the best use of the "living painting" motif. It's also one of about six times, in all eight films, that I laughed out loud at an intentional joke; the Potter franchise doesn't set the bar high for comedy, but Branagh's expressions and Columbus' staging of this scene clear it by miles upon vertical miles. (Mind you, I laughed out loud at unintentional comedy several times throughout the series: once when the framing and Rupert Grint's glassy-eyed happiness under the influence of a "love potion" makes Ron appear to be masturbating; every so often at Radcliffe's questionable reads; and I laughed and laughed and laughed at the series-ending epilogue, that sees Radcliffe and company aged up with makeup so abominably hilarious that it may well have been deliberate.)
Now, it's not just Branagh. Secrets revolves around a pretty sweet mystery plot, too—one pitched just above a dumb child's head. It won't tax an adult brain, but an adult can still find it satisfying. Of course, eventually it degenerates into the laziest, most asinine fun with anagrams you could possibly imagine—and making matters worse, it ends with a battle sequence that has more in common with a D&D campaign than it does anything fit to serve as the climax of a narrative film. But if its ending features all the glaring weaknesses of Stone, including a near-identical five-minute expository denouement while Harry lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, it is the first time I was able to say, "Now that's real magic!" in the series—that is, where the magical acts seem mystically connected to their outcome, logically coherent within themselves, and possessed of any kind of actual cost. Since the great majority of Potterian magic is simply calling one's attacks and crooking one's wand in a manner clearly meant to evoke lightsaber duels (and almost always failing), "real magic" is a relatively rare feeling in the Potter series, so I savor Secrets now all the more.
Oh, and of course it is still way too fucking long. I should copy and paste that to save time.
...AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
One of those responsible for Harry's parents' death, Sirius Black, has escaped from his confinement at the magical prison of Azkaban. Meanwhile, Harry's new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor has a secret. Could these two facts be related in any way?
I had gotten it into my head that this was where the series became genuinely good. Obviously, my own anticipation was high. Azkaban was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, he who directed Gravity, the greatest movie made in my lifetime... and his work is not quite anonymous here, but it's close to it. (Of course, this is Cuaron bereft of Emmanuel Lubezki. No Lubezki, no peace.) It's nonetheless handsome enough overall, but Cuaron's flirtation with franchising was ill-timed to say the least, because here's an unpopular opinion: this is the worst Harry Potter movie of them all and by a significant margin. Its story is beyond pointless, serving exclusively as set-up for later films and seeming to be almost proud of this dishonorable fact. It is also no fun on its own merits, thanks not only to that same old focus on the private lives of Harry and Pals, but the worst narrative sloppiness in the series. Azkaban is ribboned with idiocies that go beyond even the undisciplined crap that dominates the franchise's abortive first phase—deus ex machina ending? Try deus ex machina third act. Meanwhile, a werewolf is loose on the grounds, and there is a new professor named Remus Lupin. If my DVD had a face, I would punch it.
You will no doubt argue that I needed to be told who Sirius Black was, at a feature's length (at a feature's length and fucking change, in fact). I counter, simply, "Why?" And you've got nothing. Nothing.
This is also, I believe, the Potter film where I became extremely aware of the godawful Britishisms that constitute the majority of the kids' dialogue, so that they sound more like risible posers, rather than the actual British human beings they are. To this end, I went to a Londoner friend of mine—the one who said that Kinemalogue was like a Legion of Decency for the lumpen proletariat, actually—and asked him if Britons actually said "Brilliant!" fifty times a day and "Bloody hell!" at least a dozen. I present his answer without commentary: "Yes. It's a very grating country."
Now, Azkaban has its compensations. I very much enjoyed the musical number by the Hogwart's Children's Choir. However, it must damn Azkaban with faint praise that I found this—unassailably—the single best part of the movie.
But not least amongst Azkaban's Compilation of Things Which Occur is the magical map that lets Harry track the movements of everybody at Hogwarts—this is Azkaban's "cool idea," and every Harry Potter movie has at least one, no matter how buried it winds up by all the ideas that aren't. Azkaban is also where the pattern becomes a running gag, regarding how anyone who volunteers to be a professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts is either treacherous, cowardly, or otherwise undesirable. It's also where the pattern of the Harry Potter movies (Stone notwithstanding) being cursed with the dullest posters in Christendom becomes evident. While it's a bit unfair to hold this against the actual films, seriously, scroll down this page and the next, and behold ten years of blandness all at once.
This is the closest the Potter series gets to being genuinely unwatchable, simply by dint of being unbelievably boring for a story that has wizards and monsters in it.
Oh, and of course it is still way too fucking long. I should copy and paste that to save time.
...AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)
Harry is tricked into a wizarding contest, he is wizardly for two hours, and then HOLY SHIT IT'S VOLDEMORT.
When I say this should have been the first film, what I mean is that Fire is where they could have gotten all the having-fun-at-wizard-school bullshit out of the way in a reasonably entertaining package prior to transitioning to the dark, scary war story that the Potter series finally, finally becomes. They essentially do this twice already, in Stone and Secrets, but no one cares till Ralph Fiennes shows up. And honestly? You can't entirely blame them.
What I don't mean is that Fire is actually a great movie, or even a particularly good movie, taken as the two and a half hour behemoth that these things always are. Though we open with the baddest-ass scene in the Potter films yet—the arrival of the Death Eaters—the Triwizard Tournament that constitutes the bulk of the plot would have been vastly more interesting as an introduction to the wizarding world rather than the thing it inevitably must be. Yes, yet again, we get to watch Harry spend the first two-thirds of his movie wasting his time by completing tasks of little import, meeting low-stakes challenges that seem designed mainly to show off how much of a Chosen One he is, and how little of a Chosen One you could ever conceivably be (especially if you are a girl).
What makes Fire the best in the series so far is how it subverts its own wheel-spinning story of child endangerment by reckless educators. Narratively and visually, Fire sets a tone early and sticks with it—it's actually a pretty dour flick, rendered largely in a green palette so ghostly that the whole movie looks haunted. Roger Pratt, DP on Secrets, returned for Fire. Pratt did fine there, but did great here—through his and director Mark Newell's intepretation of the material, Fire appears to share our own impatient fear of the apocalyptic threat that's hovering just offscreen. The film gives the impression that it agrees that Harry's chagrined striving to be Wizard Student No. 1 is pointless, and that all the interpersonal non-drama it entails is really pointless. Indeed, as it turns out, it's all much worse than pointless.
Fire is as bad as Azkaban in a lot of ways, but at least it bothers concealing the unfortunate fact that it's just one more exercise in setting up the films to come; at least it bothers to pay off in the end. Fire does this by climaxing with the series' single strongest scene to this point—and, hell, why be coy, ten years later? You and I both know that Fire is where Voldemort well and truly returns: it is absolutely glorious. His resurrection ritual marks the second time that I said "Now that's real magic!" in this series, that's how pleased it made me. Ralph Fiennes is astonishingly good in what barely amounts to a cameo, embodying evil in such a perfectly complete way that even if the Potter series had nothing else going for it at all, that voice combined with that face and that langorous body language would still compel one to continue on. The impossibly-imablanced magical duel that closes the film is the best visual effects work in the series to date, and though I can't say it's entirely satisfying—another deus ex machina raises its ugly head, for yet a fourth time—it both looks inordinately cool and feels just right. I liked Secrets for itself, but for my money this is where the Harry Potter series begins. And how does it begin? With the victory of evil over good. You can't go wrong with that.
...to be concluded!