Thursday, December 02, 2010


- Well, I'm back in LA, and, whoah, it's already Hanukkah. How did that happen? Don't the holiday overlords realize that, for us Jews, having Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in the same week is simply food overload? In any case, I had a fun time last night celebrating the first night of the Jewish holiday with the crew from Valley Ruach - good times - and I look forward to seven more crazy nights still to come. So, to all my fellow members of The Tribe: Happy Hanukkah!
Now, there's a lot to talk about, and I wish I had more time to bang out some additional blog posts for your reading pleasure. I want to talk about Leslie Nielson. I want to talk about how awesome Terriers is and how everyone needs to watch it. I want to get into some Fringe and speculate on just how awesome tonight's mid-season finale will be, and state how much it sucks that this is the series' final episode before it heads to FOX-imposed Friday night purgatory. I want to discuss The Walking Dead, and how it's been one of the this TV season's most fun and exciting new series, despite some flaws and haters be damned. I want to talk about all the potentially kickass movies coming our way in December, from Black Swan to The Fighter to Tron Legacy to True Grit.

But instead, I'm going to talk Harry Potter. This will make some of you happy. It will make some of you groan. But hey, it's time to weigh in, so let's get to it.


- I waited a bit to see this latest Harry Potter film. It's funny, because when it comes to certain movies, certain franchises, I'm as big a geek as anyone, and I'll be there opening night, in line, soaking up the atmosphere of being with fellow fans psyched to see a new film about characters or concepts that we love. But, knowing how crazy fandom can be, it makes you all the more weary of getting caught up and entangled in it when it's a franchise you're not particularly passionate about. And man, Harry Potter fans are a special breed of crazy. No offense, I'm just saying. I don't know, part of me just doesn't get it. I mean, grown men digging superhero fiction I get - most of it is male empowerment fantasy that you don't ever really outgrow. But grown men being hardcore Harry Potter-ites? It just doesn't click with me (grown women, you are excused). And no, I still haven't read the books, and yes, I realize that I should. At some point, I'd like to. But there's no question - the cult of Potter is, to me, a big turn-off. And one thing I particularly dislike about the new breed of geek, the type that screams and shrieks for all things Potter and Twilight and such: they love everything without much discretion (don't they realize that the grand tradition of fandom is to hate on everything?). Logging on to Facebook the weekend of the latest Potter's release, I was mildly shocked to see SO MANY people absolutely raving about Deathly Hallows. But hey, I thought, who knows? Maybe it IS that great. Afterall, even if I'm not a bonafide Potter acolyte, I can appreciate that the last couple of Potter films HAVE been pretty damn good. As the series has gotten darker, it's bulked up its cast of awesome British thespians, making the recent films positively bursting at the seams with legit acting talent. Meanwhile, talented directors like Alfonso Cuaron and now David Yates have given the films a more sweeping, epic, artful tone. They've upped the ante, no doubt, and with each film, I admit, I've become a little bit more invested in the series and the characters. So yeah, there was a real chance that the series' penultimate chapter could have been the movie that transitioned the Potter series from decent to good to very good to *great.*

After seeing the film though, I felt like this was, in some ways, a step back. Don't get me wrong, there are some fantastic sequences in the movie. The acting is top-notch, and I'm continually amazed at how the three principles have each become such great young actors. But The Deathly Hallows is supposed to be the series' endgame, and that fact highlights what is surely the franchise's biggest flaw: the story just does not work in and of itself, apart from the books.

The confusing onslaught of characters and concepts in the movie only served to emphasize how the movie universe's mythology seems to be coming apart rather than coming together. I don't think you can level the same complaint against, say, The Lord of the Rings. Those are incredible films, period. On the other hand, the recent Harry Potter movies seem to think that staging memorable scenes from the books, and throwing those scenes together in a sort of "greatest hits" package of JK Rowling's novels, is enough. It isn't. That was okay until now, if only because I could assume as a viewer that all would eventually be revealed. I assumed that in this movie, I'd finally have a grasp on why Voldemort is such a badass villain, and why he hates Harry Potter so much. I thought I'd understand the character dynamics better - Does Harry have a real love interest? Does he really care about Ron's sister, or Hermione? Are she and Ron starcrossed lovers, or does he just harbor a hopeless crush? And what, exactly, does Harry need to do defeat Voldemort? This movie gives us a vague notion that Harry must go on a videogame-like quest to find and destroy various magical items, but beyond that, we don't really know. I don't even really get a sense of what sort of final conflict we should be expecting here. Are magical armies gathering for a huge battle? Or is everyone just sort of waiting to watch Harry and Voldemort go mano e mano in a wizard's duel? And what does Voldemort even want to do, really? Just cause chaos? Take over the world?

The movie doesn't quite make clear where this is all going, and it means you're just sort of wandering around with these characters without much narrative drive to give the movie forward momentum. And that's on the macro level. On the more micro level, Deathly Hallows bombards you with names and places and items that feel like they're supposed to be important, but are never followed up on. For example, in this film, a semi-big deal is momentarily made of the fact that Dumbledore has a previously-unrevealed brother. It sounds like an important tidbit. And then it's dropped. It's just one of many aspects of the film that feel incomplete - perhaps included for the sake of inclusiveness with regards to the books, but here only serving to muddle things and leave someone like me scratching my head. I do think there's a distinction between this sort of thing and shout-outs, as well. It's one thing to include a little fan-service in the script. It's another to take a wishy-washy approach about whether to include certain characters and plot points, and to ultimately include things but in a half-baked fashion. Again, I look at the LOTR movies, which are based on extremely detail-oriented and complex books, and I can't help but admire how Peter Jackson and co. skillfully carved out the fat while still maintaining the essence of the story and creating movies that are self-contained, that work for readers of the books and non-readers alike.

What's more, there's just a feeling of detachment that permeates throughout the movie. The various locations that Harry visits seem to bleed into one another. When Harry goes to visit the town where his parents lived, is he in a "real" town, a "magic" town, or what? And why is he so compelled to go there in the middle of his quest? Where *are* Harry and Hermione during their extended "camping" sequence? We keep seeing them in these vague places full of rocky cliffs and gray skies, but we don't really know where they're going or how far they've travelled. Given the fact that the final chapter of the books was broken up into two movies, you would think that the movie would be in a better position to really create a sense of time and place and scope. Not necessarilly.

It's interesting though, because like I said, this latest HP has some truly dynamite sequences, and I actually wish that they had been expanded upon, because they touch on some really cool ideas. I loved a set-piece action scene towards the beginning of the film, for example, where Harry and his pals are zooming through urban highways and tunnels on their flying cars and broomsticks and whatnot, while being chased by a gang of badguys. The sequence had all the energy and dynamism of a classic Spielberg-style action scene, and I was intrigued by the idea of all this magical stuff taking place right in the midst of the "real" world. I wish the scene had been longer - because it really was fairly kickass. And yet, it ends abruptly, and without any exploration of its rather sizable fallout. Another really excellent sequence is when Harry, Hermione, and Ron magically disguise themselves and sneak into the Ministry of Magic (which I thought was the same thing as Hogwarts, but apparently not - thanks for the correction, diehard HP fans!), which is now practically a prison camp run by the Nazi-like minions of Voldemort. The idea of seeing the normally-whimsical place become this dark and scary mirror image was pretty darn cool. At the same time, we also get hints that Hogwarts has now been similarly corrupted, and I was curious to see how all the students were getting by under the new, evil regime. However, we only get brief glimpses of the new, darker Ministry, and don't even go to Hogwarts. This is disappointing -- especially since the sequence where Harry and friends infiltrate the Ministry's walls is easily the most fun portion of the film. Again, it just speaks to the fact that these films haven't necessarilly been created with a singular vision or master plan. So it's only natural that you get these really cool moments, but that those moments fail to gel into a cohesive whole.

Now, I know I've done a lot of critiquing, but a lot of that is in response to all the people that shouted out to the heavens how this was the movie to end all movies and was some sort of genre-defining movie experience that was the pinnacle of an all-time great film franchise. Sorry, but no. Canonize the books, sure, but the movies? Don't kid yourself.

That said, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is in many ways a really well done movie, even in spite of the criticisms I've mentioned. I've talked about the stellar set-piece sequences - the great chase scene, the really fun, exciting scenes at Hogwarts. And I've alluded to the truly awesome cast, who make scenes pop in a way they might not have otherwise. Let me run through a couple of favorites:

Emma Watson has really helped to carry the emotional load in the last few movies, and I think she just might be the true standout of the three main actors in the franchise. She helps to sell a lot of the drama in this one, and has a real presence about her that helps to ground the films.

Helena Bonham Carter is always awesome, and she is just awesomely evil in this film as Voldemort's right-hand-hit-woman, Bellatrix. She chews up the scenery with goth-girl aplomb, and is just a lot of fun.

Bill Nighy is another guy who is basically always great, and he continues the streak in this latest Harry Potter film. I only wish he had more scenes. Same goes for Alan Rickman, who really only cameos in this one despite having been the best thing about the franchise to date.

And hey, I'll give a shout out to Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint. While I maintain that Emma Watson is the MVP of the trio, both of these guys have developed into fine actors, and Radcliffe in particular has some real dramatic chops that he shows off here.

So where does this leave us? The fact is, there's a lot to like about The Deathly Hallows, and it's an entertaining movie through and through. Great acting all around, some sweet action / chase scenes, some cool concepts, etc. At the same time, this movie had a job to do. It had to set up the next and final installment as being the epic conclusion to end all epic conclusions. It had to leave us in a place where we absolutely couldn't wait to get to that final chapter. But where does the film leave off? With both our hero and our villain still very much in the midst of their prolonged fetch-quests, wandering around trying to find / destroy magical artifacts, for reasons we never fully understand, at odds with each other, well, just because. It's funny, because there are a lot of big moments in this one for various supporting characters, yet most didn't 100% register with me. I didn't care much about Mad-Eyed Mooney (despite appreciating the great job Brendan Gleason does in the role), because his character hadn't done much of interest to get me emotionally invested. I felt like I was really supposed to love and care about the CGI creature Dobby, but I didn't, because I couldn't recall many fun or memorable moments he'd had in the series to date. I know I'm supposed to think of Voldemort as the ultimate evil, but I didn't, because he didn't do much in the film except scowl and bark a couple of menacing-sounding orders. There are things I like about the world of Harry Potter from the films - I like Hogwarts, I like the newspapers with moving images, I like all the various creatures, I like Snape. But I also don't really feel like I fully understand this world. The movies, on their own, haven't fully realized it, at least not in my opinion.

Look, I get the feeling of loving a piece of source material, and then getting that jolt or thrill when you see it translated to the big screen. But seeing bits and pieces of a great story get adapted does not a great movie make, and to me, the HP movies don't get a pass simply because the source material is so widely-known. The movies need to hold up on their own merits, and to some extent they've done that - with consistently great casting, interesting set pieces, etc. But there are also a lot of holes, a lot of things unexplained, a lot of moments that feel rushed or vague - and while they don't keep The Deathly Hallows from being a good movie, they do keep it from being a great one.

My Grade: B

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