Quick hits: Harry Potter edition

In anticipation of tonight’s finale, La Bella and I have spent the last three months watching each of the Harry Potter films. For her, it was re-watching. Having wanted to keep my personal visions of J.K. Rowling’s original novels—or is it just one big novel?—in my head, I had, up to this point, refused to see most of the movies. (Besides, I had seen one, The Chamber of Secrets, and it was awful.)

I relented this time, and I’m glad I did. The movies streamline Rowling’s plot longeurs—which isn’t entirely a good thing—and it’s fun to watch young actors essentially grow up, learn their craft, and learn their characters in real time. But any soap era would give you the same thing. In fact, watching the movies in quick succession made it clear that, whatever Rowling’s faults as a prose stylist, her dense structures and intricate plotting demand a HBO-style series to do it justice. Rowling needs seriality. Like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Delany’s Nevèrÿon, and Le Guin’s Earthsea, Rowling’s world is richly conceived with folklore, social traditions, pop culture, and the everyday details of life being lived. That world, as much the bildungsroman tale that moves us through it, is what resonates. To build that world visually on film (or video, or CGI), you need space, and you need time. The most persistent complaint about the Harry Potter movies is that they feel rushed and that, as a result, too much gets shortchanged: characters are introduced but not developed; relationships are presented but not humanized; magical scenes whizz and bang but don’t resonate. There are flaws in the argument—Rowling’s digressions are sometimes pointless, and some major conflicts are unnecessary and poorly handled—but mostly truth. That truth became evident, and magnified, as I dove in the vision that screenwriter Steve Kloves and a variety of directors tried to fashion out of Rowling’s world. Consider this edition of “Quick Hits” as field notes to that exploration.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), dir. Chris Columbus, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and a whole slew of British character actors collecting a nice paycheck. Chris Columbus and company probably spent $100 million on the production, and it still looks cheap. The CGI Quidditch match is particularly egregious but the lifeless magical animals―troll, Cerberus, gargantuan chess pieces, Voldemort grafted onto the back of a man’s head―are equally bad. None of this would matter, of course, if Columbus had invested us in these characters’ lives, and given the Hogswarts atmosphere a true sense of being lived in. (After all, the special effects in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark now look “cheesy” on any objective level but you’re still enthralled.) But no. Columbus never refrains from a swooping shot or a grandiosely encircling one―the better for us to see what all this money’s been spent on―nor does the score (which, I swear, plays continuously and too loudly throughout the entire fucking movie) ever decide against projecting exactly what we should be feeling at any given moment. Events pass by so quickly that it’s as if the filmmakers are ticking off marks from the book (“Have we introduced Hagrid?” “Check.” “Has Snape insulted Potter?” “Check.”) rather than giving us room to drink it in and become absorbed by the movie’s world. But Columbus hasn’t created a world but instead just created a series of setpieces. Initially, I thought this movie might be better as a miniseries, so that a full year’s advancement would be felt. But then I remembered that Rowling’s original novel gets across a full school year, with a complete sense of what classes and regular life at Hogwarts are like, in a brisk 320 pages or so. (And the first third of the book is Harry’s origin story, of sorts, so it’s really only 200 pages of school time.) So, length’s not the issue. Rather, it’s that Columbus knows little about pacing, even less about character development, and nothing at all about building and sustaining a fantasy world. And we have to sit through his ineptitude for 150 minutes. D

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), dir. Chris Columbus, written by Steve Kloves, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, and every other British character actor in the world. Again with the endless swooping shots, showing off every dime spent and every meticulous detail rendered. At least there’s the beginning of a sense of style―the roving tracking shots and crane shots are sinuous and meandering, much like a snake’s slither. Could it be that Chris Columbus is learning to use his camera as visual metaphor for what’s happening in his film? Heavens! We still have to deal with amateurish, cutesy kid acting; a score that overpowers every scene and telegraphs every emotion we’re supposed to feel; the weird absence of wit in Dumbledore’s behavior (which is so strong and buoyant in the books); and a sprint so fast through the narrative that character motivation and relationships are lost to the razzle dazzle. B-

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), dir. Alfonso Cuaron, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, and more British character actors than there are people in Great Britain. At last, an actual movie―instead of Cliffs Notes for slow readers―from this series. It’s astonishing what a director with an acute visual sensibility and a refusal to pander to children can bring to the table. It’s genuinely funny because the slapstick and dry dialogue isn’t punctuated incessantly by music cues or kid-actor mugging. It’s haunting because of the deep shadows; deep blues and browns; lengthy tracking shots; sequences that mirror other, later sequences; and use of silent-era tricks such as wipes and iris fade-outs and fades-to-black. All these tricks actually serve the purpose of providing a subjective account of how the characters see the world… instead of just pushing along plot. It’s not that Cuaron doesn’t do a swell job with plot. He keeps several (complicated) strands moving effervescently and propelling things at a breakneck pace. Through the use of the Whomping Willow’s growth periodically, and through gradual pacing and color changes, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the first of the movies in which the sense of passing seasons―and of a full year of life being lived―is made manifest visually. Wonderfully staged, vivid in its rich colors and fluid camera movement, delicate in its editing, this is the first Harry Potter movie that’s worth watching. A

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), dir. Mike Newell, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, and the International Order of English Actors In Need of Work. Dear me―I thought, with The Prisoner of Azkaban, that Emma Watson had finally learned not to over-emote. Alas. Why speak calmly when you can throw your voice? Why use the rest of your body gesturally when you can scrunch up your face real big and pout? Why speak naturally, with conversational cadences, when you can e-nun-ci-ate every word as if we were watching a Hooked on Phonics demonstration? She carries over Chris Columbus’s earlier tendencies to italicize every gesture and major plot point, and director Mike Newell doesn’t do enough to save her from herself. He’s too busy running through the plot too briskly. The handheld style and jump cuts, along with the greenish and muted colors, intends to tend the movie toward documentary―which is a welcome change from the golly-gee-willickers style of Columbus’s films. The downside is that, if you haven’t read the books, the movie doesn’t quite work. It’s the CliffsNotes version. (Only #3 works fully as a work of cinema, independently from the source material.) The breakneck pacing gives no sense of time passing―technically, a year goes by, but it feels just a few weeks. Relationships don’t get fleshed out, nor do personalities, so when a teenager’s death occurs, it doesn’t stick in the mind. Nevertheless, Newell’s moody lighting scheme and strong use of mist and obscured vision means that there are some genuine scares. Voldemort’s return to form, specifically, is spectacularly horrifying. But most of that is due to Ralph Fiennes’s performance, with his slithering and dense cadences, his balletic but menacing movements. He’s back, and aren’t we glad. B

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2006), dir. David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, and the British Embassy of Contemporary Actors, First-Class. David Yates’s sensibility is jumpy and anxious, which suits a year in which Harry Potter feels most like a nervous, overwhelmed, misunderstood teenager. So, the concept is good―deep blue filters, constant jump cuts, angle changes, shaky camerawork. It feels like a $100-million Dogme 95 film being made. Unfortunately, the lo-fi aesthetic seems borne of desperation. The Cuisinart editing sense and handheld work disguises, but only partly, that the shot coverage is poor, and that the filmmakers’ sense of blocking and staging is pedestrian. If you watch the shots closely, the inconsistencies add up. Even if they didn’t, the jumpy aesthetic is overused, becoming the point of the movie rather than punctuating its themes―loneliness, alienation, nervousness. That’s a shame, because Radcliffe has grown deeply into the Harry Potter role, giving a performance that balances anger and anguish without seeming to veer into either mode. Rupert Grint has improved. Poor Emma Watson still loves scrunching up her face and over-italicizing every word. The adult performances are all brilliant, humorous and humanizing. The final battle royale―eerily lit, with deep shadows and high-contrast blue-on-black―is more nakedly expressive and bravura-like than the previous two hours. After all the bleakness and jittery rhythms, it’s earned it. B

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), dir. David Yates, starring Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Felton, and a horde of British actors setting up their 401k’s for life without having to do too much work. The blackness gleams―that’s the first thing you notice. Every surface seems to shine but it feels like there’s shoe polish on the celluloid. The high-contrast images remind us of nothing so much as film noir, and the fact that most of the characters spend the movie skulking around and hiding just out of sight―of other characters and the movie viewer―only adds to the dark allure. The next thing to note is that Yates has actually learned how to block a scene, in both deep focus and fuzzy backdrops, so that characters and visual metaphors are being glimpsed all around the frame without quite overlapping, without quite connecting enough for anyone onscreen to put all the pieces together effectively. As viewers, we see the whole frame―and we see even more, if we’ve read the book beforehand, but nevermind―but also grasp why Harry, Hermione, and Ron just miss crucial clues, or only hear them halfway. Just as most of the dialogue is whispered, overheard, or muddled, so is the visual sense. It’s eerie and sinister. Even the humor is bleak, and a little off-center. Radcliffe shines as Harry, who knows the truth but can’t prove it or convince anyone. Grint and Watson do solid work. I still wish Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore was a little less gruff, a little more fatherly, and a lot funnier. Voldemort fails to come across as anything more than a stock supervillain, rather than the particular, specifically defined character that Rowling makes him in her novels. His backstory is thoroughly unengaging, and his younger self lacks the oozing charm that would make such a person so persuasive, charismatic, and deadly. These flaws in Dumbledore and Voldemort are telling, because every other adult character is so precisely, succinctly drawn. What it tells us is that the characterization’s faults lie not in Yates’s direction but in Steve Kloves’s generic scripts, which are reductive where they should be expansive. The Half-Blood Prince is nearly as good as The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the over-quick characterization only emphasizes, all the more, that this should’ve been a seven-year TV series to begin with. B+

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010), dir. David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and every contemporary British actor in need of a country home. Surprise! It’s the action sequences and spectacle that ring false, due to a misguided sense of cinema verité for a genre (fantasy) that is, by design, the antithesis of the documentary aesthetic. No matter―the quiet moments (and that’s 75% of the movie) shine, and the picture becomes a character drama that studies how an ad hoc family (Harry, Ron, Hermione) form, resolve conflicts, and cohere under trying circumstances. The star-studded supporting cast is terrific, of course, but it’s Radcliffe’s show all the way, and he’s finally at the point where he can grab the ball and run with it. Hard-earned emotion rarely gives way to sappiness, even when a major character dies, and the cold gray-green color palette gives the movie a downturned mouth. Perhaps it’s too downturned. The joy of magic isn’t much conveyed, which means that the quest to save this world isn’t made as explicit as it should be, particularly if you’re coming to the movies cold―they cut lots of detail from the books that add vivacity and tangibility to Rowling’s vision. While I admire the movie’s in media res construction, its visuals don’t help us fully grasp what’s important and why. Maybe this problem will be resolved in Part 2. Maybe the filmmakers should have just had the resolve to make a 6-hour movie that gives the fullness of Rowling’s world-building, and damn the box office. The series has more than made enough money by now, anyway. B+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Quick hits: Harry Potter edition

  1. Pingback: Harry Potter film overviews « To Be An Electric Telegraph

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