Weeeeeeeell I guess I knew this day would come. I’ve read all books, and followed the movies up until the last ones, at which point I kind of got too cool for school. But school’s out, and it’s time to embrace my lameness and take a trip to Lameville, where I will be blitzing through the whole series. That’s where I’ll be for 8 films, 10 years, and four directors. Pass the oreos and milk, I’m about to turn 11 years old (actually 26 years old—please send help).
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (USA/UK, 2001)
Directed by: Chris Columbus. I suppose there’s not an awful lot to say about these first two Chris Columbus movies. The guy’s name is fucking Chris Columbus, why take him seriously? But, I’ll give him credit—no one makes a big-budget, highly lit, shlocky kid’s film for shlocks like that guy. He’s like Spielberg for children, except instead of Schindler’s List or Munich under his belt, he’s got Jingle All the Way and Mrs. Doubtfire. Just sayin. That being said, these first two films are the perfect fit for a guy like Columbus: light, fluffy, drenched in special effects, etc etc. In fact, I’d hazard to guess right now that a good chunk of the overall content of these films—all of them—are just in the special effects, which start here at being pretty interesting and remarkable for their time, to being, in my opinion, some of the best uses of CGI in live action movies so far. Perhaps the most impressive thing is how Columbus was able to get pretty great performances out of 11 year olds Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. As they progress, it’s easy to take potshots at them (and I think I will), but for kid actors dealing with this kind of relatively heavy drama, this is pretty damn impressive. Re-watching these films, it struck me how a lot of the appeal of this magical world of Rowling’s, especially conveyed on film, is how it responds to our modern world with its convenience, its emulation of safety and predictability as the ultimate virtues to be striven towards. This world of magic is unpredictable, as terribly inconvenient as often as it is convenient, and of course, incredibly dangerous, especially for children. There’s probably been articles written about how these films gave a generation of kids stifled by overbearing, anal retentive parenting habits a vicarious outlet for their natural desire to go out in the world and experience it for all its danger and unpredictability. If that’s the case, then this film also enables that overbearing, fussy, incubating impulse by allowing those parents to sit the kids down in front of the TV for hours and hours of time, vicariously experiencing danger with Harry, in the safety of the living room. And when they grow up, what you get is me: a grown adult obsessively watching all of these films in order on my own time. Anyway….
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (USA/UK, 2002)
Directed by: Chris Columbus. Here we go again, part two! It’s easy to forget how much those kids grow, even just between the first and second films. The filmmakers really were racing against time with these kids, and it’s interesting to think of the logistics of going into an endeavor like this—8 giant films, back to back to back, all expected to perform amazingly well at the box office, all with the same actors, and the three leads are kids in the process of growing up. The fact that these films were made at all is kind of a miracle in that sense. But as for this film, I can honestly say that it’s really enjoyable. For all the shit I’m about to talk about Chris Columbus, he is possibly the best children’s director out there today. These first two films are thoroughly enjoyable, fast paced, amusement park rides that still have a lot of heart—all of the heart that the books convey. I have to mention Kenneth Branagh and how great it is to watch him hamming it up in this movie. The casting is absolutely amazing in this franchise. In fact, I think I’ll start keeping a tab on the Who’s Who of British Actors that this franchise enacts with each film. As for the amazing core of Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, et al, Columbus did a great great great job of forming the characters for us and getting them (and us) ready for all of the heavy shit that J.K. Rowling proceeds to put them through. It’s easy to forget how damn dark these movies are, even the first two, and they just get darker and darker (albeit, with a pretty slick gloss of sugary sweetness at the core of it). Maybe I’ll dive into the critical studies bullshit a bit later. For now, it’s enough to appreciate the job Columbus did in preparing this film franchise for mass consumption of the different stuff that’s going to be on the forecast, and also to appreciate that Columbus’ limitations as strictly a kid’s director made it completely out of the question for him to be considered to continue past this film. The production team were so wise here to switch directors. And I think now, I’ll permit myself some unbalanced, prejudiced judgment calls.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (USA/UK, 2004)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón. Prejudice time! Let’s just say it: watching this film lets you see with your own eyes what a lowest-common-denominator, unimaginative hack Chris Columbus is when compared to a director who actually has a little bit of artistic vision, a little bit of aesthetic consideration, and who appears to actually watch movies in his spare time other than his own. I could talk all day about this movie. It was really my favourite of the series (not having seen the last ones), because it really holds up on its own. It’s light and playful—every bit a kid’s movie—but not insultingly so, and it has such incredible darkness in its colour palette and lighting scheme, it serves the story so damn well. The image of the umbrella in the rainstorm during the Quidditch match, the flecks of water shaken off by the Whomping Willow that stick to the camera lens, the use of extreme darks, of irises, and what my untrained eye tells me is a much nicer camera stock—this is the beginning of what I feel is a pretty good argument for Columbus being an objectively “lesser” director than Cuarón. Of course, this is probably just prejudice talking. The casting in these movies kills me, and this one has more great guest appearances—Emma Thompson is great as the flaky divination teacher, Trelawney, even if she’s hidden beneath those great glasses. The casting, as noted before, is amazing, but they really kick it up a notch when they get Gary Oldman and my man David Thewlis, not to mention the underrated Timothy Spall, in the mix. If they’re going to add some heavy gravity and weight to the series (and they totally will), they knew they had to get the talent to support it. I loved dear old Richard Harris, but seeing Michael Gambon breathe some youthful air into to Dumbledore was a welcome change from Harris’ more typical “Merlin” type deal. It’s impossible to say if the comparative rigidity and gravity, and his lack of darkness, that mysterious and ambiguous something that Gambon brings to the role as films go by, would have come through in Harris with the amazing directors brought in after Columbus. It’s obvious that this film heralds a pretty dramatic break, both in content (the books) and in stylistic approach, from the first two. This film is where the franchise takes more cues from (and takes a leading part in creating) a sense of magical realism rather than the pure fluffy fantasy of the Columbus films. There’s magic, obviously, permeating every moment, every shot of every film almost, but from this movie onwards, the basic substrate of this world is very “realistic”; the magic is draped over a world attempting to very closely emulate our own, with its physical and social laws sharply intact. There’s dirt and grit in this fantastical world. It’s tempting to love this film more than the ones following it because the name Alfonso Cuarón is attached to it, and he has major indie/foreign/art film cred, but this is honestly a great movie, with the whole time travel bit at the end, and the beginnings of that adorable little quasi-romance between Hermoine and Ron. It gets pretty unbearable later on, but here it’s just kind of hinted at, and it’s pretty endearing.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (USA/UK, 2005)
Directed by: Mike Newell. And in this film, the heavyweight guest is…Brendan Gleeson! He’s pretty great for this role, even with the added complication that he’s not actually playing “Moody” for most of the film. I’m not really familiar with Doctor Who, nor Twilight, but I’m sure people noticed David Tennant and Robert Pattinson here. It’s also pretty cool to see Miranda Richardson pop up as that irritating paparazzi—a great knock on British tabloid journalists. There’s a pretty big chunk of discussion to be had about this franchise and the way that it incorporates modern society into this set of fairy tales. My memory of critical theory is failing me, but there’s something about how taking an oblique look at something, indirectly, will furnish a more complete and accurate picture than a direct look will. I’m thinking here of realism, and how it inevitably fails and distorts the more it tries to be faithful, and these films with their magical realism, are perhaps better suited to making some kind of political commentary on modern society than a lot of other films. There’s enough ambiguity in the world of Hogwarts and what it’s meant to signify that any direct allegory is pretty hard to do. You can bring your own point of view to bear on these symbols and metaphors, and that’s where their power lies. This is why, when that opening scene of the attack on the Quidditch World Cup comes, it’s so damn jarring and horrifying. It’s basically Glastonbury, or some other big communal festival, and it’s being blown up and invaded by an organized terrorist group of neo-fascist racists who borrow their rhetoric from Nazi Aryanism and their pointed hoods from the KKK. It’s jarring because, as much as these films are fantasy and magic etc, this scene is a scene that could definitely happen in our world. There wouldn’t be a magical green skull symbol floating in the sky, but, frankly that’s the least disconcerting part of that sequence. The horrifying part is the rest of it, the parts that are completely grounded in our reality, and then kind of dressed up a bit for the mythology. Speaking of evil, Ralph Fiennes makes his first “proper” appearance here, and he really is perfect for this. It’s a dangerously two-dimensional character, his evil for the sake of evil. That’s perhaps the weakest link in these stories, writing off Voldemort as one of those “some people are just born with absolute evil in them”—although perhaps it’s not that much different than his villain in Schindler’s List. Compared to the relative depth of the series in almost everything else it looks at, the Malfoys for example, it’s kind of annoying that this core upon which the mythology rests is so simplistic. But, that being said, Fiennes is so damn good at doing this, knowing when to be exaggeratedly evil and when to pull back and show some intelligence. The constant deus ex machina that these stories has to resort to in order to keep Harry alive from one film to the next can be kind of annoying. His dead parents are always showing up to help him out, or Dumbledore, or Dobby, or this or that or the other thing. It’s fine, I guess, but also kind of irritating, and this film is the beginning of where it gets to be kind of too much for me. All in all, though, Mike Newell did a great job here, and it begs the question as to why the producers decided to keep looking after they found him. Judging by the fact that they kept David Yates for the last four movies, there must have been something that didn’t click with Newell (or with Cuarón), but visually, to my lazy eye, I can’t really see what that might be. This is a perfectly good movie, and his style is a perfectly good style.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (USA/UK, 2007)
Directed by: David Yates. So here we go with David Yates. This movie was a pretty good movie all in all. It occurred to me as I re-watched it that Gary Oldman’s character, Sirius Black, was really kind of a throwaway character. You know the old “onion” theory of film plot development? The things that get introduced last get resolved first, and the characters that get introduced last get killed first. Just a general rule, plenty of exceptions, but here it’s Dumbledore and Sirius. Sirius was a pretty “big deal” in the franchise, and in only two movies/books, they let us think that he was indispensable, so that when he died in this film, he would lend some extra gravity to the story and some extra torment to Harry’s character. After seeing it again, it seems kind of contrived. I don’t know. Just me? The all-star Brit actors squad kicks it up in this film with a few big name actresses—Helena Bonham Carter (doing a Tim Burton role for someone other than Tim Burton for once), and Imelda Staunton as the incredibly infuriating Professor Umbridge. Umbridge really is one of the best characters in this franchise, and actually a much better villain than Helena’s dastardly Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Ralph’s Voldemort, really. Other than that, I can’t think of anything that remarkable about this one. I really like Luna Lovegood and the whole thing about the Thestrals that only she and Harry can see because they’ve seen death. She’s so wonderfully weird in the books, and that actress, Evanna Lynch, does a great job conveying that in the movies, starting here. It’s also nice to see a bit of revolutionary zeal among those kids—the cynic in me has to scoff a bit and think about how in real life, those kids would just play video games and masturbate and let their school be taken over by fascists with barely a yawn. ANYWAY, this is actually a pretty interesting film in its own right, mostly due to Umbridge and her proto-fascism. Has anyone written a book yet on Harry Potter and the Allegories of Fascism? Because it would practically write itself, especially as we dive deeper into these final films…
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (USA/UK, 2009)
Directed by: David Yates. Just when you thought these kid’s movies couldn’t get any heavier, they get heavier. I’m thinking of that scene where Dumbeldore takes Harry to that cave with the big scary lake and the little island with that poison water that Harry has to force-feed to Dumbledore, while a bunch of dead zombie guys are creeping up from the water. That’s actually one of the more bleak and terrifying things I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. Besides that, though, I suppose they do a good job keeping the tone kind of light. It’s remarkable, actually, how each of these films somehow maintains a core of youthful humour and lightness even in the midst of this life-and-death struggle. By the time this movie rolls around, the teenage pubescent romantic angst is in full swing, and it functions in this movie in a pretty humourous way via Ron Weasley’s love potion and his sickeningly overt romance with Lavender Brown. But I have to say—this movie really establishes Rupert Grint as a great comedic actor, doesn’t it? Just me? Anyway, the light tone is definitely helped along in a strong measure by Jim Broadbent—the British Superstar Guest Appearance for this film—who certainly has the ability to be dark, but also just carries around something really warm and friendly, in a distinct but similarly inexplicable way shared by Tom Hanks. Of course, they’d already done the “evil professor” story before, but even so, I was dead sure within a few moments of screentime that I could trust this character—it’s Jim Broadbent! And from here on, I believe, it gets even heavier and it doesn’t let up until the very end…
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (USA/UK, 2010)
Directed by: David Yates. Looking back, I think I like this one way better than Part 2. Even though I’m a fan of a cheap, 90-minute movie that knows how to combine good storytelling with brevity, and the modern trend towards two-part movies at 2+ hours each is kind of irritating and time consuming, in this case it’s actually not a bad idea. The first part of this book was the interesting part anyway, if you ask me. What makes these movies so great isn’t the epic showdown between good and evil so much as the dynamics between these three main characters as they go through their shit together. In this movie, you basically get to see these three actors at the apex of their experience (to this point) just hashing it out for 150 minutes or whatever it is. When they’re in London, when they go to the Ministry (those three adult actors they turn into with the Polyjuice potion are great—including the guy from The Departed), and the long period in the woods as they fracture apart and the questions of romance and friendship and conflict all start to get really uncomfortable and just stews for like an hour—all of that is just gold to me. I could just watch this movie on its own over and over. Is that beloved Scottish character actor Peter Mullan? Yes it is. Is that the beloved and better known Bill Nighy? Yep. Both are underused, unfortunately. Poor Bill gets just one good scene—fortunately lots of facial closeups—before he’s unceremoniously killed offscreen. Such is life. They were decent enough to give Rhys Ifans a pretty neat little role as the crazy guy who betrays them for his daughter. You can’t really hold it against him, though. Having seen him recently in Anonymous, it’s striking what a fucking chameleon he really is. Anyway, I guess there’s not much else to say other than just gushing about the different stuff I think is awesome in this movie. Now finally, I can almost go to sleep…
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (USA/UK, 2011)
Directed by: David Yates. And the final quota to fit some towering names of British film in here: the amazing Ciaran Hinds (not given much to do, but nonetheless), and a final appearance from my man John Hurt (from the first film), and Warwick Davis, who had the great luck to play a bunch of characters, at least one in each film. Somehow, even beneath all of that prosthetic shit, Warwick really makes that goblin into a memorable character. I want to take a moment to address the obligatory Romantic Relationship they threw to Harry and how disappointing I found it overall. I guess I never really bought into that romantic subplot between Harry and Ginny in the first place. Maybe it’s more developed in the books—I don’t remember—but in these films, it’s kind of an afterthought, rushed and obligatory. The closest they get to really cementing anything is that little exchange when he zips up her dress. That actress, Bonnie Wright, carries a really amazing maturity and gravity in her few scenes in these later movies, in my opinion upstaging dear Emma Watson with every minute of screen time. I guess it’s just as well they didn’t give her any. Now, having gotten that out of the way, I don’t know how much stuff I have to say about this film in itself. As noted, Part 1 was a pretty awesome, enjoyable movie experience—as was most of this franchise—and this film is the Epic Conclusion that we’re supposed to want. I guess I want it, too, and I guess it does a good job and everything. I think maybe it’s inherently less interesting, after all we’ve been through with these characters, to just see the triumphant conclusion that the formula dictates will inevitably appear. I would have liked to have seen that fan plot that was floating around before the final book came out—a big reveal at the end that Neville Longbottom is actually the chosen one and Harry was a decoy, and Neville saves the day. At least that would be a pretty dramatic (and fucking awesome) alteration to the predictable ending. And, of course, the “ending” ending—20 years later, seeing all of these teenagers in “old” makeup happily helping their kids off to Hogwarts—as overwhelmingly touching and heartwarming as it is, it’s so awful I feel like vomiting just at the memory of it. It’s a tie with the Godfather III for unnecessarily explicit and disappointing endings to epic stories. Of course, the REALLY interesting ending would be that other great fan-fic speculation ending which dictates that Harry wakes up in a straightjacket and we realize that the entire thing has been a fantasy world concocted by his fragile, abused mind, as an orphan who is relegated to living under the stairs like a slave for his whole childhood. This is certainly the more plausible explanation, but I’m still a sucker for good old Hogwarts.
This is truly a remarkable world that Rowling has made, and to see it brought to life in such a great collection of films is pretty amazing. The film critic in me is basically dead to this subject—I just really like these movies. The obsessive compulsive in me urged me towards watching these films in as close to back-t0-back fashion as practicality would dictate (and sometimes beyond practicality). I can’t say I recommend staying up until 5 am to finish these films, but if you do, try to time it so that you doze off right as Harry is beating Voldemort so you can miss all of the awful shit that comes after. Goodnight, and pray for me.