Posts Tagged ‘usual Harry Potter mob’

I have gradually come to the conclusion that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are essentially unfilmable. I know this is a bold statement, and one with which some circumstantial evidence (not to mention $6 billion worth of box office receipts) may seem to conflict. Nevertheless, I honestly feel that as entities in their own right, the films just don’t stand up, and they exist only as companion pieces to the novels. The only film I’ve seen which approaches the quality of the source book is Prisoner of Azkaban, while most of the recent installments have fallen horribly short.

I think this is because Rowling’s world is so rich and textured, and her plots and characters so detailed and intricate, that they simply don’t lend themselves to any other medium. Lord knows I’m not the biggest fan of the books, but I’m bright enough to recognise that their success isn’t wholly a fluke, and I did enjoy them all (even if Order of the Phoenix dragged on to a ridiculous degree) – so I have been able to keep track of the films, pretty much. My parents, on the other hand, haven’t read the series and have emerged from each successive adaptation in a deeper state of bemusement.

I always wondered if this was just them, but as luck would have it there I was at the Putney Odeon tonight as the final credits rolled on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (the safe pair of hands responsible belong, as before, to David Yates) when I found myself sitting next to a woman who hadn’t read any of the books either. I should point out that it was she who kicked off our discussion of what we thought of it, as I am not in the habit of initiating conversations with strange women at the cinema (or indeed anywhere else).

Well, I made various non-committal noises and averred that I didn’t imagine anyone who hadn’t read the books would ‘get’ the films. ‘I haven’t read any of the books,’ she said. ‘But if you just go in assuming there’s going to be a big spectacular battle and that Harry’s going to win in the end, it’s enjoyable enough.’

I can’t argue with that, and indeed, on those terms this film passes muster. But if you’ve never read the book and haven’t seen the previous episode recently, you can forget about keeping track of what’s going on. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums are in search of Plot Coupons which will help them get shot of the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, barring his nose). Having wandered all over the country last time out, this time (after a brief spot of bank robbery) they return to the wizard school at Hogwarts where they believe one of said coupons may be located. Voldemort and his followers are soon on the scene and a battle of truly epic proportions is clearly in the offing…

Hallows Two‘s origins as the second half of a very long book are really very obvious. Just as Hallows One didn’t have a proper ending, this one doesn’t have a proper beginning, and most of the rest is comprised of material that would really be the climax of a less grandiose project (it’s sort of shapeless and perhaps a little repetitive). If you view the films as a single entity, then I suppose this makes sense, and as I said before it doesn’t even attempt to stand up as a film in its own right – there’s no recap, and it’s assumed that the audience is entirely familiar with events from the first couple of films even though they’re nearly a decade old now.

Even on these terms, though, is it any good? I don’t know. The visuals are as spectacular as one could hope for – though given the budget these guys have to work with, that’s hardly a surprise – and the Potter rep company are all present and doing sterling work, even if most of them have hugely diminished roles this time around (special commendation to Matthew Lewis for actually making an impression in such high-powered company). And, every now and then, and often when you least expect it, there are fleeting moments of genuine magic to be found.

As you might expect, not all of the book’s plot makes it to the screen. Grimly predictable though it was following the excision of most of Voldemort’s backstory from Half-Blood Prince, most of Dumbledore’s history has got the chop from this one, and one suspects the revelations about Snape only stayed in because the plot demanded it. The decision to include the epilogue sequence from the book is, for once, questionable – it’s unintentionally funny and the young leads just look like they’re dressing up as adults. ‘That was naff’ piped up one young voice as the final credits rolled, although – who knows? – he may have been passing comment on the whole enterprise.

(That this film, and the series as a whole, concludes with a section celebrating the fact that nothing has really changed, and life goes on exactly as it did in the good old days, tells you everything you need to know about the underlying sensibility of the Harry Potter series, I think.)

On the whole it really is just business as usual, albeit on a grander scale. The thing is, though, that there were sections of this film that – unsurprisingly – put me in mind of the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Now, when both of those final films concluded I found myself genuinely struggling to maintain a properly stalwart manly demeanour – but in this case, I found myself completely unmoved. I never invested in the cinematic version of these characters, never really cared about the story.

Wiser heads than mine have applauded this series for having things like proper characterisation and plotting and themes and atmosphere, and given the woeful standard of many FX-driven blockbusters this is not something to overlook. And, like all the other Harry Potter adaptations this one is polished and efficient. But that’s really all it is.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 17th 2004:

Sometimes low-budget and art-house films have more of an influence on mainstream and genre cinema than you might think. Consider the kitchen-sink, realist (some might say miserabilist), socially-engaged films made by people like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke in the UK over the last twenty years, films like Meantime, Made in Britain, Naked and Life is Sweet. Consider the generation of outstanding British actors these films have made famous – performers like Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Tim Roth. Now consider what all these high-powered thesps are currently doing with their time!

Yes folks, it’s a review of another Harry Potter movie, in which nearly all of the above pop up – and had Tim Roth not turned a recurring role in the franchise down in favour of doing Planet of the Apes we would have had the full set. I must confess to having felt merely whelmed at the prospect of the latest installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, mostly due to the bland overfaithfulness of the first two films (and the frankly alarming behaviour of some of the more fanatically zealous Potterphiles). But, freed of its previous role as warm-up act for Lord of the Rings, and with new director Alfonso Cuaron at the wheel, the series has taken a quantum leap forward.

It kicks off in ominously familiar style, with the Dursleys being beastly to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), before the whole back-to-school routine begins once more. The appalling danger facing our hero and his chums (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) this time round is all to do with disturbed wizard Sirius Black (Oldman) who has escaped from the magical prison Azkaban and is determined to track Harry down…

To be honest, on paper the plot doesn’t have much to distinguish itself from that of the first two films, it’s the same mixture of intrigue, imagination and humour, with a few twists along the way. And in many ways this film is much like its predecessors. As noted at the top of the page, this series has the ability to attract a truly stellar cast for even quite small roles (one suspects many of them have their arms twisted by their kids). The regular cast (Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman) all show up once more, and this time round they are joined by Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Lenny Henry, Julie Christie, Michael Gambon, and Emma Thompson (who hams it up something chronic), to name but most of them (and I swear I saw Ian Brown from The Stone Roses as an extra in one scene). Presumably the producers have squads of hunters out looking for Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench, who seem to be about the only two classically trained British film stars yet to have appeared in this series. Admittedly some of these people have very tiny parts (the fourth-billed Christie has about three lines), but in way that’s almost more impressive. The key parts are uniformly well-performed, and Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris well, giving the character a slightly distant, slippery quality that bodes well for future appearances.

Of course, all the Potter movies have been all-star-cast affairs but what’s new this time is a welcome change in focus and direction. Steve Kloves’ script is commendably ruthless in the way it hacks back the text to produce a focussed and pacy script that never drags or outstays its welcome. Admittedly there are a few loose ends come the final credits and some of the exposition is a little shaky but probably only people who already know the story will notice this.

But the success of Prisoner of Azkaban is largely down to Alfonso Cuaron’s direction. Cuaron knows how to give a film atmosphere, as is obvious from the slightly Time Bandits-esque opening. He gives the real world scenes real grit, the ones in Hogwarts and elsewhere a genuine sense of wonder, and the contrast between the two has never been so striking or effective. It’s invidious to make comparisons, but it’s probably impossible now to make a big-budget fantasy film without setting yourself up against Peter Jackson’s mighty trilogy – and Cuaron acquits himself well, particularly in the sequences featuring the spectral Dementors. Their grim presence seems to have bled out and given the rest of the movie a rather chilly atmosphere (ironic, given this is the first Potter movie not to get a Christmas release). But there’s warmth and humour here as well as bleakness, with inventive and funny jokes and visual quirks filling the screen on a regular basis.

I may have to go into hiding for saying this, but for me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first in the series to actually take flight and work as a film in its own right rather than just as an adaptation. And, of course, it does J.K. Rowling’s work much more justice as a result. Great fun, for all the family – dare I say it? – magic.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 28th 2002:

As dedicated readers of my collected works may recall, I wasn’t tremendously impressed by Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series of films based on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books: it seemed too pleased with itself, too doggedly devoted to the text of the novel, and – above all – much too long. Not to mention that it came out very close to The Fellowship of the Ring, next to which almost any fantasy film would be found wanting.

Obviously, though, I was in the minority on this (as with so much else) and the film duly proceeded to become the second biggest money spinner of all time – and now, implacably, inevitably, the machine has geared up and produced Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed once again by Chris Columbus.

So off we trundled to see it, pausing only to pack sleeping bags, iron rations, and a supply of batteries for our electric razors – because the first film had its moments, after all, and Chamber of Secrets is probably my favourite of the books. Breath was duly bated – would it live up to the hype this time?

Well, calloo callay, and so on, because in nearly every way this film improves on its predecessor. It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to describe it as ‘darker and funnier’, but that’s what it is. In it, Harry Potter (still played by Daniel Radcliffe, still afflicted with a dodgy barnet) finds that the onset of puberty means he must do battle with an alarming, malevolent serpent. But in his case this is more than mere metaphor. The new menace is inextricably linked to Harry’s own heritage and the history of Hogwarts, and will place Harry and his friends in deadly peril…

The producers seem to have redoubled their efforts to get every single British actor of note to appear in the series1, and joining the likes of Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters and the late Richard Harris in this installment are the likes of Mark Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Jason Isaacs, Robert Hardy, Julian Glover, an almost unrecognisable Shirley Henderson, and, best of all, Kenneth Branagh, who gives an uproarious turn as the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart. The downside to all these new faces are that some of the cast (most noticeably Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman) are somewhat eclipsed (the chemistry between Rickman and Branagh is a delight and very under exploited).

But at the heart of the film are the performances of the various young actors in the principal roles. To be honest, some of these performances are irritatingly over-emphatic or one-note, but this made up for by Radcliffe’s increasing assurance as a performer. A brief thumbs up to newcomer Christian Coulson, too, who hits exactly the right pitch in one of the film’s crucial roles.

Chamber of Secrets is, even mores than its predecessor, arse-murderingly long, but you’re aware of this fact much less often. Only at the very end does the pace let up, and (a brief glance at the book tells me) this is mainly because a lot of extraneous material has been cut. At the same time the story has been subtly tweaked to make it more cinematic – the beefed-up encounter with Aragog and family easily surpasses anything in Eight Legged Freaks. My only complaint on this front would be that the ultimate villain’s motivation has been snipped, reducing him to the level of troublemaker rather than Machiavellian schemer. Ah well.

The technical side of things has been spruced up as well – the special effects are much less cartoony, which was probably inevitable given the wide array of CGI beasties in the story. Columbus’ direction displays new-found flair – am I the only one who sees the influence of a certain Kiwi director in the swooping camera movements around Hogwarts and its exterior? The soundtrack occasionally seems like a selection from John Williams’ back catalogue, but it does the job.

Any film based on the Harry Potter books would be pretty much guaranteed to rake in money, no matter what its quality, so it’s nice to see genuine effort has gone into trying to make a film that does justice to J K Rowling’s remarkable prose. I still can’t see how they’ll be able to tackle the other books in this much detail – at this rate Goblet of Fire won’t be so much a night out as a weekend away – but, for the time being, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a big step in the right direction.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 27th 2001:

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact. – Sir Ian McKellen

For a critic, even a pretend one like me, there is only ever one ambition: to write about the subject accurately, entertainingly and persuasively enough to have some impact on the way the reader views it – maybe even enough to influence whether or not they decide to see it all. Sometimes success is, perhaps, achieveable. And sometimes… well, this week I’m looking at Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and faced with such a couple of cinematic colossii, whose metaphorical ankles I stand no higher than, it quickly becomes obvious that I’m staring defeat in the face.

Both these films are based on the opening volumes of well-loved fantasy series1. Both have been eagerly awaited. Both feature powerful casts and striking effects-work. Both look very certain to muscle their way up the all-time box office takings chart. Obviously, they are – superficially, at least – very similar.

And consider the storylines: the story of an ordinary, unassuming young orphan, living with relatives. After he discovers the remarkable significance of his inheritance he is forced into a journey of discovery. His ultimate opponent is a dark lord whose power is resurgent – his greatest ally a venerable wizard of formidable power, though there are friends both large and small to be found along the way. At the end the Death Star blows up. So, yes, both stories derive from the same tradition of heroic fantasy. But the way in which the stories are told for the screen couldn’t be more different.

Lord of the Rings has a large cast, containing many well-known faces: Ian McKellen – who’s fast becoming one of my favourite performers – as the wizard Gandalf, a magisterial Christopher Lee as his counterpart Saruman, Liv Tyler as the Elf maiden Arwen, Ian Holm as the legendary Bilbo2, and Sean Bean as the mercurial warrior Boromir. But all seem to have been cast solely on merit, just as with the lesser-known actors in other key roles – Elijah Wood as Frodo, the ringbearer, Viggo Mortenson as the stoic ranger Strider, and Sean Astin as the faithful Sam Gamgee, to name but three. (There are also a couple of well-known names rendered unrecognisable by their prosthetic make-up, particularly John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the dwarf.) The performances are uniformly excellent, at the very least: Wood is moving as Frodo, and as the wizard, McKellen is a towering presence.

With Harry Potter, though, it was ever-so-slightly like watching people in free-fall fighting over an insufficient number of parachutes. Every few minutes, it seemed, someone like Julie Walters or John Hurt would roll up, do a show-stopping cameo and then clear off. Now most of these people were also very good, but the overall effect was a bit distracting – a combination of ‘I wonder who’s on next?’ and ‘is that all they’re actually doing?’ Robbie Coltrane emerged from the scrum with most success, with Alan Rickman and Richard Harris not far behind. The troika of child stars were rather variable, I thought, and under-used (dialogue seemed to consist wholly of exclamations of ‘Whoa!’ for long stretches of the film). Rupert Brint was good as Ron, but as Harry, Daniel Radcliffe was a bit too passive (and looked like a strange hybrid of Walter the Softy and Liam Gallagher).

I think Lord of the Rings scores over Harry Potter in the visual department, too: admitted it has the bonus of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, to awesome effect, but even so I found my jaw continually dropping open at the sheer beauty and power of the images on the screen – a brief but impressive glimpse of Sauron’s fastness, Barad-Dur, the manic activity in the pits below Isengard, or the infernal might of the Balrog (a stunning creation). It’s the most fully-realised fantasy world in many years. Harry Potter, of course, is set in a version of our own world, but even so the special effects, while respectable, are not as convincing as one might have hoped for (the Quidditch match is particularly disappointing).

It should be obvious by now that I rate Lord of the Rings a good deal higher than Harry Potter. And the main reason for this has nothing to do with the concerns outlined above. Harry Potter was made in consultation with the author of the books, JK Rowling, who apparently had the power of veto over all aspects of the production. Probably due to this, and also from a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, director Chris Columbus has made a visually rather bland film that sticks very, very close to the book – too close, in fact. The result is a film that frequently seems unfocussed and a little self-indulgent and is certainly at least thirty minutes too long – Lord of the Rings is a longer film, but doesn’t feel overlong the way Harry Potter does. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but by staying too close to the original text it does Rowling’s remarkable prose no justice.

By contrast, Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien that will make any purist blanch. There are many substantial changes – sections of the book have been removed and new material inserted in their place. But all the changes serve to make the story work for the screen, as a film in its own right. The memorable-but-superfluous visit to Tom Bombadil is gone completely. Glorfindel’s role is carried out by Arwen, to provide a suitable introduction for her. The pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders is suitably chilling and relentless. Frodo’s encounter with Galadriel (an ethereal Cate Blanchett) is truly startling. Most significantly, Saruman’s role has been substantially beefed up, and he and his hench-thing Lurtz provide a physical personification of evil lacking from the text. And throughout the whole enterprise, the key themes of Tolkien’s work – the corrupting influence of absolute power, the conflict between mechanisation and the natural world, and the power of true friendships such as the one between Sam and Frodo – are emphasised and explored.

It’s by no means perfect, though. Longeurs threaten in Rivendell and again in Lothlorien. The romance between Aragorn and Arwen doesn’t really justify its inclusion. There’s no real sense of the topography of Middle Earth, but short of handing out maps in the foyer I can’t think of a solution to this. The Professor himself would be appalled by the Celticisation of much of his creation. And the end is, perhaps inevitably, a little anticlimactic. But it’s still a magnificent achievement.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a superior, though overlong, children’s adventure. It’s also a film with a mountain to climb. The Lord of the Rings is that mountain, and The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic in every sense of the word – and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next years’ Academy Award for Best Picture.

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Between August and November 2007 I read Cervantes’ epic masterpiece Don Quixote, not a quick read or a particularly easy one – but at the end of the 750 pages I was convinced this novel deserves its longevity and reputation, because it is quite simply brilliant on so many levels. Also in August 2007 – well, actually in the space of 24 hours in August 2007 – I read J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Deathly Hallows also weighed in at a hefty 750 pages, and while its popularity seems assured for the short term, only the passage of time will reveal whether the appeal of the Potter series will endure for future generations. (Part of me suspects it will – part of the books’ success now is surely due to the fact they seem almost intentionally old-fashioned.)

Not that this will stop me from holding forth on the movie adaptation of the first half of the book, directed by David Yates. For lo, the plot has been declared to be too complicated to be cut back in the manner of the last few Potter pics, and it’s been hacked in two to ensure the story is properly satisfying. Or, if you’re cynical, to milk the golden goose completely dry. (There’s something amiss with that metaphor but I can’t quite put my finger on it.)

I have to say that my idea of what form the movie-making process takes varies from film to film. Sometimes I envisage a precision-tooled high-performance machine being slotted together. On other occasions the image is of an intricate piece of jewellry being crafted, or a stunning garden being tended. But with the most of the Potter movies I just get the impression of a safe pair of hands turning a crank on the side of a machine and vast quantities of money spewing out.

That’s probably a bit unfair to Yates, but I defy anyone to name another film he’s made outside this franchise. He does a very solid job here, I have to say, and seems particularly comfortable with the effects-laced large-scale sequences. Some of these have been pepped up for the screen, which is fine. He’s also strong when it comes to establishing the bleak and rather desperate atmosphere which exists in Potterworld by the time this story kicks off.

Is there any point to me even attempting a synopsis? Form demands I try. Sigh. As the forces of darkness grow ever stronger, youthful wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends are in a tough spot. Harry has undertaken to find and destroy all the pieces of the sundered soul of his nemesis and the foe of all that is wholesome, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes sans nose). Unfortunately he has very little idea how to actually go about this…

By this point you’re either on board the Potter wagon or you’re not. The hordes of young adults at the screening I attended can’t even have been in their teens when the first movie came out back in 2001 – given how irritating they all were, laughing in the wrong places, and talking through the trailer for Green Lantern, for instance, I certainly found myself slipping into grumpy old man mode. Over the last nine years, I suppose some of them will have left home and discovered the pleasures of the flesh (maybe I do have something in common with them after all), so perhaps this is an epochal moment for them.

The fact remains that as a movie in its own right, Deathly Hallows Part One – like all the recent Potters – has some serious issues. My parents always troop off to see each one as it comes out (they got the habit when for a couple of years running there was a Potter and a Lord of the Rings every Christmas) and emerge entertained but also deeply baffled by what was actually going on. I, on the other hand, come out rather exasperated but for different reasons.

For me, much of the pleasure of reading the Potter books – and a very real pleasure it is – comes from the intricacy of Rowling’s plotting and the richness of the detail of the world. The movies provide the latter in a slapdash sort of way, but they fall down badly when it comes to the former. This one isn’t as bad an offender as the previous installment, but lots of backstory gets cut, and it’ll be interesting to see if the film-makers feel obliged to stick a recap on the front of the concluding part.

This one breaks new ground in a couple of ways, though, completely dispensing with the school setting in favour of sending the leads off on a long and (tautology ahoy) miserable camping trip. This is welcome, but on the other hand not a huge amount happens, given the running time, apart from the Hogwarts Three discussing the plot and squabbling with each other. I don’t know about you, but one of the pleasures of the movie series is going to see people like Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane and Jim Broadbent and so on, and so on, doing their thing – and for most of the film none of them are in it!

Turning up near the beginning and end though, there are some good guest spots: Helena Bonham Carter’s role seems to have been beefed up, while Peter Mullan is actually really scary (not something you can say about most Potter bad guys). Mullan’s big scenes take place inside an impressively realised Ministry of Magic. There’s a definite homage to Brazil going on here, which I am less inclined to coo about than most – it seems slightly disingenuous given that Terry Gilliam (Rowling’s first choice and someone who would surely have been brilliant) was vetoed by Warner Brothers.

But it does look fantastic throughout, and I suppose we must thank J.K. for the fact it doesn’t simply devolve into a quest for plot coupons as could have happened all too easily. Probably the best bit is an animated sequence near the end which begins to explain the significance of the title. Having said all that, lack of any proper climax or sense of suspense at the end, coupled to some moments with a high level of potential bathos, meant that I came out feeling rather indifferent. Together with the second part, this movie may eventually end up doing justice to the book (which I should probably say that I really enjoyed). On its own it just seems to be going through the motions, efficiently but mechanically.

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