Book Review – Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Written by Jody Revenson
Published by Titan Books
RRP £24.99

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, there is no such thing as enough information about the world of Harry Potter. This book is made with love and care for fans of JK Rowling’s creation, and it is a treasure trove of beautiful photographs, concept art and lovely details from behind the scenes that infuse appreciation for the amount of hard work that went into the making of the films. You need to have this handsome book on your shelves if you are into Harry Potter (which includes me, as can be evidenced by the Harry Potter tag on this blog).

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Notes On A Film: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2

Not a review: these are the thoughts of a fan [see all my posts on Harry Potter] after he has seen the film (in 2D, of course, because I avoid money-grabbing 3D films that were filmed in 2D), and it assumes a detailed knowledge of both the books and films. You have been warned

This discussion of is belated but there is a reason. I couldn’t write about the final film in the Harry Potter series because I was so emotionally bereft after viewing it. The film was great, a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the series, and it made me cry in all the right places, but I was left with that strange feeling of loss that it was all over and I won’t have new Potter films to anticipate. It had to come to an end – all good stories need to end, otherwise there’s no point – and I don’t need the comfort blanket of the continuing adventures of Harry Potter (although I would like a JK Rowling-written encyclopaedia that covers all the stuff that happened to the cast and the world afterwards), but I felt sad that I’d seen the last one at the same time as having enjoyed the film.

The film hit all the high points of the book and was exciting and moving, but it was odd that the first part of the Deathly Hallows was so long and leisurely in its telling of the story whereas the second part seemed to be rushed in comparison (apparently, it’s the shortest of the eight films). The book had to be condensed, even in two parts, but the concentrating of narrative beats seemed more acute in the second film. It was all about the climax, moving the characters towards the finale – gone is any of the background information about Albus Dumbledore and why he did what he did; the section about the Ravenclaw diadem Horcrux is condensed considerably, changing the subterfuge angle from the book in to a charging-in approach, and drastically reducing and altering the involvements of ghosts in the deduction of diadem’s location (although I did enjoy Kelly MacDonald as The Grey Lady); any sections that involved people talking about what’s going on (planning in the cottage, talking to Aberforth, accessing Hogwarts via the Room of Requirement) are reduced to the shortest time possible, in order to get to the action (and they omit the postscript in the headmaster’s office; I would have liked to see the way Harry repaired his wand and removed the Elder Wand from the book, instead of the film’s version) – but strangely, Yates has extended and expanded the actual final battle to something more dramatic and ‘cinematic’, although not necessarily better. The book contained the finale in the Great Hall, so that everyone was witness to the face-off between Harry and Voldemort; the film prefers the open landscape of the ravaged quad and has Harry and Voldemort jumping off the top of the clock tower and flying around fighting each other (I think Yates made a lot of tiny errors in this section due to the power going to his head: in a short interview, he talked about this flying scene being a eureka moment, but it seems rather silly; he also requested the dialogue that was seen in the trailer but excised in the final film (‘Why do you live?’ ‘Because I’ve got something to live for’) because he realised that the reason why screenwriter Steve Kloves didn’t write it in the first place was because it was rubbish and that Voldemort wouldn’t be a chatty type in a fight; he also has Harry and Voldemort fighting for longer than in the book which doesn’t make any sense because it just provides more moments where it’s obvious that Voldemort could easily kill Harry but doesn’t because it says so in the plot.

These are quibbles, however, of a fan and of someone who has read the book. As Kloves put it, we kept the emotional core of what was happening, and they did a great job of putting the book on film. There were a lot of things I enjoyed in the film. Seeing Snape in charge of a Hogwarts where the students have been beaten into submission was powerful, the action scenes were exciting (I knew what was happening and even I had the enjoyable thrill of tension as I watched the film); it was great to see Professor McGonagall taking charge and leading the defence of Hogwarts. The explanatory quiet scenes were included and were powerful: the Pensieve scenes of Snape’s memories was beautifully done (Rickman’s face might have looked a little computer-enhanced in one scene, but the scene where he holds Lilly Potter’s body was devastating) and seeing Dumbledore again in the King’s Cross scene (tears were in my eyes when he says to Harry, ‘You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man.’) was nicely done. The scene with the Resurrection Stone had the tears really flowing, which is a perfect indicator that they had got the tone completely right; after that, I was an emotional wreck and even felt a lump in my throat at the moment when Harry, Ron and Hermione see each other for the first time after Voldemort’s death and communicate so much with just facial expressions. To be fair, I had a lump in my throat when McGonagall said it was good to see him to Harry, so I don’t know if I can be completely impartial.

Another thing: if you’ve read the book, you realise that the whole story is told from Harry’s perspective – events that occur to other people when he’s not there have to be recounted to him in some way. So we saw Fred’s death in the book (which is played differently in the film) but don’t see Remus and Tonks die. When the film made the change of following Ron and Hermione into the Chamber of Secrets to see Hermione destroy the cup Horcrux (and the Ron–Hermione kiss), I hoped they would give Remus and Tonks their moment but it was not to be. I also thought we’d get more of the other characters in wizard duels in Hogwarts, but most characters only got brief bits (we did get Molly Weasley killing Bellatrix, which was pretty cool), which seemed odd because there could have been so much more spectacle to add to the more cinematic climax they were creating but didn’t. I’m so difficult to please.

What am I trying to say about the film? I thought it was a good film, a good conclusion to the series of films, with the story intact (more or less), everyone doing a good job on screen (although most of the adults barely get more than a few lines or scenes; it’s entirely about Harry) and behind it, it wasn’t perfect but it made me cry and I look forward to all the deleted scenes on the DVD.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1

I am back and I have seen the first part of final Harry Potter film, so I’m going to ramble on about it in a completely biased fashion because I’m a fan of the whole Harry Potter thing (see my collection of Harry Potter-labelled posts for all my previous Harry Potter-related nonsense).

It’s strange to discuss a film which is only half a film; I remember hearing stupid people complaining about the end of The Lord Of The Rings because it obviously hadn’t ended, but at least that was a narrative arc of sorts. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a film without an end, waiting to finish. I’d rather have the whole thing in one sitting, but as I said: I’m a fan.

As a fan, I know the story quite well, so I spent a lot of time noticing which bits were missing. However, Steve Kloves did a great job on the script streamlining a big book into an entertaining narrative without losing the important points. The book had lots of internal stuff about the characters, as well as big chunks of exposition and excerpts from obituaries and biographies, which aren’t going to work on film, and lots of non-plot conversations which weren’t needed. Despite its long running time, the movie barely wastes much of it.

For those who don’t know, the basic plot sees Voldemort in charge of the Ministry of Magic and out to kill Harry; Harry, along with Ron and Hermione, is on a mission to discover the missing horcruxes that contain portions of Voldemort’s soul so that they can finally defeat him, as well as the discovery of the Deathly Hallows. This means that the middle third of the movie is the wizarding road trip, as our trio travel around the country to avoid their pursuers while trying to uncover clues to help them on their quest.

The first and third sections have the exciting stuff. After the funny ‘seven Harry Potters’, when Harry is being relocated from 4 Privet Drive, there is the Death Eater attack in a thunderstorm; there’s the escape to Shaftesbury Avenue after the wedding and another attack by two Death Eaters; there is the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic to acquire a horcrux. In the third section, there is the really creepy sequence with Bathilda Bagshot, the destruction of the horcrux, the capture by snatchers and the escape from Malfoy manor, all exciting and really well-done sequences. In between, the film is much slower as our three leads are the only characters on screen; however, I didn’t mind this because I wanted to spend time with these characters and see how the story moved along.

As mentioned, there was a lot of little thing eliminated for the sake of a smoother progression. No need for the pre-wedding planning, or the extra visit from Minister for Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy doing a Welsh accent for some reason), or the settling in to 12 Grimauld Place and getting Kreacher on their side or the long planning of the expedition to the Ministry of Magic. Nor was there time for Lupin’s attempt to join the trio on their quest due to his feelings of anguish at having a baby with Tonks (which almost gets mentioned), or setting up the fake Ron to explain why he wasn’t at Hogwarts. They don’t bother with the separate locations when leaving Privet Drive (so no Ted Tonks or portkeys), going instead straight to The Burrows; Bill Weasley already has his werewolf scars, which were gained in the Death Eater attack. There’s no explanation of the trace on saying ‘Voldemort’ out loud, or why our trio stop saying it; there’s no need for the overhearing the group on the run (consisting of Ted Tonks, Griphook and Dean) for another perspective to how things are; the capture by the snatchers happens by accident instead of saying Voldemort’s name, and Voldemort isn’t called back from visiting Grindelwald when Bellatrix Lestrange has our trio in Malfoy Manor. All of this stuff is not needed for the telling of this section of the story. It’s not necessary and not missed, and is only noticed by its absence for people who know the source material. It doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the movie.

David Yates does a good job directing the film, making it darker and more moody, although he still lacks the ability to bring the magical touches I so admire from Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. The three leads do a good job of bearing the majority of screen time, with Rupert Grint perhaps outshining Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson by the fact of having the slightly lighter role. The adults are barely in it by comparison, but the likes of Jason Isaacs and Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter bringing nice moments to their relatively fleeting presences. The mood is suitably sombre, with only the occasional flash of humour to bring a smile (the Phelps twins get most of the laughs as Fred and George Weasley, with Grint getting some smiles as well). The biggest laugh was of embarrassment, with a bizarre sequence where Harry gets Hermione to dance with him to lighten the mood when they have been on their own for a while and feeling low; it’s starts off rather hideously badly with the squirming attempt at dancing, but they just about manage to save it by the end of the scene.

The most beautiful sequence is the animated telling of The Tale of The Three Brothers, which is done in a wonderful folklore/faux-puppetry style that is both appropriate and delightful. The rest of the CGI is pretty impressive – I particularly liked the patronuses, and Kreacher and Dobby were amazingly photo-realistic – and the film as a whole looks good. It makes me want to see the second half right now, to see how they visualise the remainder of the story, which means they must have done a good job. As an adult, I enjoyed it very much, even though some of the kids who had bunked off school to see the 10.30am showing didn’t enjoy the more languid pace of the middle section, chatting to themselves because they didn’t think much was happening, but everyone knows that kids don’t have much of an attention span … This isn’t really a review, because they would have to make a complete hash of things for me to dislike it, but if you are a fan then it is a very enjoyable film that makes you eager to see the second half; if you’re not a fan, you might not have as much fun.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4: Not A Review

I love the Lego games and I love the Harry Potter books and films, so I knew in advance that I was going to love Lego Harry Potter Years 1–4. And it didn’t disappoint. If you enjoy the films and enjoy the cuteness and humour that Travellers Tales bring to their execution of a fun game, you will pass the time very happily indeed.

The game is based on the first four films (specifically the films and the way they move through the stories, and not the books, although there are some book-specific references – the Sphinx in the maze of the Triwizard Cup doesn’t appear in the films but is present in the game, and Rita Skeeter can turn into a beetle), splitting each film into different levels with six sections for each. The really good aspect to this is that there is a real synthesis of game and story: in a game, you have to learn the techniques before you can use them, and the structure of the stories involves progressing through school lessons, meaning a natural way to pick up new spells. This means that you start with a basic spell that disrupts items so you can pick up Lego studs, but you have to wait until your first lesson before you learn Wingardium Leviosa, the basic levitating spell that recognises elements to be moved with a purple glow around them. This is another aspect where the magic of Harry Potter blends more naturally with the world of the Lego games: building items you need to solve a puzzle or progress in a game is more understandable when magic is involved; having Indiana Jones or Han Solo or Batman physically building objects is rather silly, if endearing.

The story games progress through aspects of the plot, with ‘in between’ sections providing more room for game mechanics. For example, the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup is not a huge section in the film, but is a whole section in the game, wondering around the area, saving wizards, putting out fires, saving Weasleys and fighting Death Eaters. The further you progress, the more you acquire that will help in the game: Harry gets the Invisibility Cloak, Hermione gets Crookshanks in the third year when Ron loses Scabbers (small animals can be controlled to move through pipes – you can even unlock Neville with Trevor the toad), Expelliarmus is acquired in the second year, Ron and Hermione learn Ridikulus in the third year while Harry learns Expecto Patronum, and it is only in the fourth year that you final learn Reducto, which will blast metal and thus unlock many more secrets.

It is the secrets that really open up the game: having unlocked Free Play by completing each level, you can go in as different characters (a recommendation: unlock a character who uses Dark Magic early on in proceedings, because there are lots of sections that require this, where objects have a red glow around them) and need the full range of spells to complete the game successfully. There is a lot to do: there are Students In Peril to free (you get nice music when you help them in the game, and a rousing cheer when it is noted at the end of the level), 167 (!) characters to unlock (they really do include everyone from the film, even the Masons from the second film, who don’t even get to speak, although there are many differently clothed versions of the main characters and other significant players), the four pieces of the Hogwarts crest to find in each level and random gold bricks to locate.

In addition to the game levels, there is the whole of Hogwarts to explore – it is a huge expansive level in its own right, and a delight. In the game sections, you are guided to each level by Nearly Headless Nick, but you can roam about to all parts of the grounds (with the exception of the Room of Requirement, which is only discovered in the fifth year), discovering sections and unlocking characters, while there are some nice moments in the background – in a quadrangle where you have to unlock a few things, Professor Moody transforms Draco Malfoy into a ferret before Professor McGonagall reverses the spell. You can go to the Owlery (where you can unlock Cho Chang, which is appropriate for the film version), the lake, the classrooms, the toilets, the headmaster’s office, all of the House common rooms (which have several rooms within them) when you have unlocked characters from each House – there are even sections that are unexpected, such as a basement under Professor Flitwick’s classroom, or what looks like the classroom for Muggle Studies. There are also sections where you enter the same classroom at different times of the day or night, and there is a very clever use of the Timeturner (which Hermione picks up in the third year) to transport you to a secret area by sending you back in time in the same area.

The charm of the game lies in the details – apart from the cheeky cut scenes that play around with the story and characters in an affectionate way, there is the cuteness of a baby dragon, the adorable way in which you can transform Professor Lupin into a werewolf (with accompanying howl), the attacking spells you can use on just about anyone (except the ever-vigilant Professor Moody) that increase the size of people’s head or reduce it or cause their hair to turn ginger or into some flowers, an unlockable version of Moaning Myrtle in a swimsuit, or playing xylophones to a dragon to send it to sleep. Just the fact that outside Hogwarts it is raining most of the time is a nice touch. Another charming element is the use of music and sound effects from the film: the main themes accompany all sections, and it’s extremely pleasing to produce a patronus and hear the same satisfying noise before it hits a Dementor. There is also fun when you play different characters, with specific talents: Dumbledore can get in any room in Hogwarts or Lupin as a werewolf can both dig and is very strong.

With all the positives to the game, there is a negative: it is perhaps the most glitch game I’ve ever played. Apart from the many times when the game would freeze in the middle of a level, thus losing all the work, there are little glitches throughout, like the Red Brick Detector pointing down a stairway that is impossible to actually reach and turns out to be incorrect anyway, or when characters walk past Mandrakes that have been potted but move slowly as if they are still making a noise (Mandrakes screeching is used to smash glass in the game, but you can unlock the ability to change the screeching to singing, which is much more beautiful). I don’t know if it’s a glitch, but levitating Lego bricks to create things to jump up or across sections was really annoying, not finding the correct piece to move or not locking into place correctly, and proved extremely frustrating. The worst glitch involves the basement under Flitwick’s classroom – the first time we played, it didn’t recognise the attempted exit, which would see you jump high back into the classroom above and the door close, and so it kept throwing us back down into the basement, repeating it over and over again until it finally recognised what we were doing. Very annoying.

Fortunately, the glitches are not sufficient to overcome the enjoyment of this game. The Bonus levels you unlock through the game are very similar to the equally silly Bonus levels unlocked in the second Indiana Jones Lego game, and seem equally out of place here; and the final bonus level where you are Voldemort and a Death Eater destroying Lego London seems a really bizarre choice for the last memory of the game. However, this game is such infectious fun that we started playing it all over again almost immediately. Doing Lego magic in Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, the Burrows, Diagon and Knockturn Alleys, blowing up stuff, making objects fly around in a flurry of magic, using Polyjuice Potion to turn into a character you’ve unlocked – who wouldn’t want to do that all again?

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The Harry Potter Factor

As I have said before, I really like the Harry Potter films – see the tag ‘Harry Potter‘ if you don’t believe me – and have subsequently watched them many times. The side effect of this is that, instead of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, all films I watch now can have a Harry Potter Factor based on how many actors in the film have also been in the Harry Potter movies. This is helped by the fact that the adult actors in the Harry Potter movies are generally very good and are in demand.

For example, I have just watched Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton (which will be discussed at some stage): it has a particularly high Harry Potter Factor of 6 – Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Alan Rickman (Prof. Snape), Timothy Spall (Wormtail), Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxine), Imelda Staunton (Prof. Umbridge), Paul Whitehouse (Sir Cadogan – he is seen in the paintings in the background in Prisoner of Azkaban).

I watched Green Zone the other night (also to be discussed eventually), which has a Harry Potter Factor of 2: Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy). I have seen The Book Of Eli, which has a Harry Potter Factor of 3: Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Michael Gambon (Prof. Dumbledore), and Frances de la Tour again. Going backwards, films can have retroactive Harry Potter Factors:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has a Harry Potter Factor of 3 (Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall all together again in a Tim Burton film)
In Bruges has a Harry Potter Factor of 3 (Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes [Voldemort], Clémence Poésy [Fleur Delacour])
A Cock And Bull Story has a Harry Potter Factor of 3 (Mark Williams [Mr Weasley], Ian Hart [Prof. Quirrell], Shirley Henderson [Moaning Myrtle])
Love Actually has a Harry Potter Factor of 2 (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson [Prof. Trelawney])
Much Ado About Nothing has a Harry Potter Factor of 3 (Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton, Kenneth Brannagh [Prof. Lockhart])

I think you get the idea …

As the stats show, it does help if the film or cast is largely British; in fact, it comes as a bit of a shock (to me) when a film with a mostly British cast doesn’t have a high Harry Potter Factor. For example, I was watching Stardust on television the other night, which is developing into a very rewatchable film, when I realised that it only had a Harry Potter Factor of 1: Mark Williams. I had to go through the cast list on IMDb to check, but I was right. It just didn’t seem possible that such a low score could occur. Still, it must be possible to make films these days without actors who haven’t been in Harry Potter films, I guess; I just can’t imagine how they do it …

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Notes On A Film: Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

I’m a fan of the Harry Potter books and film (see these links for proof, so apologies for the slipshod nature of these notes), so the sixth film in the franchise is going to be aimed for me, despite any noble intentions the film-makers might have about making the film accessible for everyone. I also think that this film has more resonance for people who are intimately familiar with the books and films, getting more out of the small moments that make up this film, instead of the normal plot-heavy stories that have preceded this latest instalment.

One of the pleasures of this series is the adult actors, who have been brilliantly casting and give good performances in small roles. Alan Rickman is brilliant as usual as Snape, except for the flat and awkward delivery of ‘I’m the Half-Blood Prince’ line at the end of the film. Michael Gambon is finally good as Dumbledore, getting the whimsy and the tough and the smart; it’s a tough role that I don’t think he had got quite right in the previous three films. Jim Broadbent is good fun as Professor Slughorn (I was hoping for a reunion between the Spanish Infanta [Miriam Margolyes, also Professor Sprout] and her interpreter (Don Speekenglish) from The Blackadder episode, The Queen of Spain’s Beard – I’m just amused at Oscar-winner Broadbent doing a silly Spanish accent, ‘Yes, my love, my love’; however, Sprout doesn’t make an appearance, so my dream went unfulfilled), coming in as a new chap in the ensemble but fitting in smoothly.

The film is streamlined from the book – the Slughorn memory is changed to having no mention of the Horcrux, which gives a purpose to getting the memory and a revelation for when this is achieved, giving dramatic impetus for film rather than just confirming Dumbledore’s theory as in the book; Malfoy’s plot is shown throughout the film, setting up a ticking clock, rather than having it as a vague plot happening in the background in the book; this also means that the film eliminates Dobby and Kreacher, and there is only a little bit of quidditch. But they’ve got a lot to cram in, especially as they are more interested in the emotional connections of the various characters.

The younger actors have to do a lot more acting than normal, and it’s at this point that the producers must think how lucky they got with young cast growing up – Ginny and Draco in particular. Daniel Radcliffe is hilarious in the Felix Felicis ‘happy’ scenes but his serious stuff isn’t so good (the scene where he gets the memory from Slughorn should have been him being more magnetically charming; the forcing Dumbledore to drink the potion should have been more emotional), but it’s similar with the younger stars (except Emma Watson, who is good at both); Rupert Grint is hilarious when he’s under the love potion, but mopey for all the rest. This has an effect on the interactions: in the film, Ron is the comic relief, which works well; unfortunately, it makes him look like a bit of a prick. His only redeeming feature is his loyalty to Harry, which makes Hermione’s affection for him completely unwarranted.

The film works if you know the characters; otherwise, it is ordinary teenagers and their emotions, with a bit of special FX, which must have been quite a hard sell. However, I really enjoyed it because I’m familiar with characters and story and enjoy seeing it move along, seeing the characters interact and play off each other. Anyway, the sixth book is a large info dump and a lot of set up for the final book, so turning it into an emotionally narrative motion picture was always going to be difficult.

I really enjoyed the little moments that were added to make the development of relationships more cinematic (instead of taking its time in the book), such as when Harry is dropped off at the Burrows and the interplay between him, Ginny, Hermione and Ron; Harry and Ron discussing ‘nice skin’; Hermione talking about the smells in the love potion; Harry and Ginny eating mince pies. Other changes to facilitate the film I’m not so sure about: the attack on The Burrows is not in book and doesn’t really serve any purpose as far as I can see, and loses some internal logic because of that. I’m also not sure about the famous talking point, where Harry Potter immobilised in book at the big scene, but here he doesn’t interfere with the action because Snape tells him not to; this changes the tone of this scene in the Tower, and I still haven’t decided which I prefer.

An aside: if Dumbledore doesn’t know about the Horcrux in the film, why did he go looking for the ring? (The story of the ring is not really explained in the film, so maybe they didn’t care.)

David Yates does fine in the director’s chair (the opening shot of Death Eaters flying over London is great) but he’s not as good with the young actors, especially if you compare their acting with the more natural and believable work in Prisoner of Azkaban under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron, and he still doesn’t provide the background magic (again, compare with Cuaron’s work); I understand that the films are getting darker and it’s not about the magic, but the element should always be there in non-distracting form. However, he keeps control of the film and brings it home.

Finally, a fan’s silly snipe: the only thing I would have liked that wasn’t in the film was Fawkes’ lament. They showed him flying away, but I would have liked an attempt at his song of mourning, although it happens in the book in a section that is excised completely from the film, so perhaps it would have been difficult anyway.

My final verdict is slightly biased (aren’t they all?): this is not a great film, especially for people coming new to the film (but how many people are there like that?), but it is very enjoyable for fans, and I’m one of those. It’s warm, moving, detailed, interesting and fun to watch the characters interacting.

Rating: DAVE

[See here for my film rating system]

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(Old) Film Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban poster(All the talk of Harry Potter had me looking around at my old notes, where I found my original review of the third film. So I thought I’d include it for completeness.)

This is the best film of the franchise so far. This is probably helped by the fact that the book was the best so far, but the film itself is a cracking film in its own right as well.

Everything about it works wonderfully; the younger cast are growing in their roles and really look the part, and are more like teenagers in general; the mood and atmosphere is wonderfully evoked throughout; the humour is very funny; the older generation are a delight, particularly Alan Rickman and David Thewlis (Gary Oldman was perfect for Sirius Black, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next two films); the CGI is brilliant yet subtle, giving the film the genuine ethereal element, where all the images and painting that are supposed to move, move (like the wanted poster of Black on the walls, for example); and the director brings a sense of real ‘magic’ to the film, if you’ll pardon the expression, where Columbus only brought the Spielbergian sense of awe and wonder.

The film is not a direct translation of the book, unlike the previous two, which helps as well. A film is a film, not a book, so some things that work in the book won’t work on screen. The film follows the main points of the book, with Dementors surrounding Hogwarts after the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban, the prison for wizards, who everyone believes will be out to kill Harry. The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin, seems to know what he’s doing for once – Harry connects with him when Lupin saves Harry from a Dementor and reveals that he knew Harry’s parents, and then teaches Harry how to defend himself against Dementors.

Everyone is so good that you wish there was more for them to do. The actors playing teachers turn up mostly for information roles, but it’s still nice to see them. Gambon is an able replacement for Richard Harris, but I have to admit to a preference for the latter as Albus Dumbledore. Fortunately, the actors in the main roles are all so absorbing that you almost forget there are others to enjoy, such as Emma Thompson as the simpering divinity teacher.

There are some great twists and turns throughout, as anyone who read the books will know, and the film moves at a brisk pace. However, the film also provides space to enjoy quieter pauses, and uses the Wheeping Willow to mark the passage of time in an amusing manner. Also, the film ends better than the last two, as there is none of that ‘hurrah’ end of school nonsense, but with a rather more sombre feel, and the two new close adult friends that Harry makes are not allowed to stay around to remind him of his parents. But, as The Empire Strikes Back shows, the ambiguous endings are always the better ones.

There are some great lines (‘Does my hair really look like that from the back?’), the romance between Hermione and Ron is subtly moved along (although I personally prefer Harry and Hermione to become a couple, all indications in the book are against this), and the film just looks so good that it’s a shame that Alfonso Cuaron is moving on and Mike Newell is on board for the fourth film. For now, though, we have a wonderful Harry Potter film for fans and novices alike.

Rating: DAVE

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Book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book coverAs I’ve mentioned, I enjoy the Harry Potter series. I enjoy the world that JK Rowling has created and the characters that fill it. The attention to detail, from the huge history to the names of people and spells, and the placing of a world of magic next to the context of the modern world of the mundane are wonderful. Therefore, I was looking forward with anticipation to how it would all come together in the final book.

I was amazed by the hype and coverage that surrounded the release of the book. The media coverage was particularly impressive and wide-ranging, but the fan level was even more amazing. And this was all for a book. Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that show hope for the human race? That people were that excited about a book. It gave me a warm tingle. It was probably this that made the going out, just before midnight, to pick up the book along with many others, seeing the queues outside book shops of people eager to get their hands on a copy. I’m glad I was out there at 12:01 along with everyone else, being part of the phenomenon.

I read it in a rush over the course of Saturday and Sunday, finishing it too quickly on Sunday and giving myself a bit of a headache in the process. But it was worth it, and there’s no higher praise I can give it. Even though, as a fan, it was going to be hard to be disappointed by this book, the final book follows on and completely ties up everything that has gone before in a marvelously satisfying read. Everything is connected, with even minor characters from earlier stories making appearances, and details from throughout the previous six books have an impact on what happens in this book, in logical and narratively satisfying manner.

We find Harry at the Dursleys, getting them into protection as we near his seventeenth birthday, when the protections on him and the house will end, and he has to go into hiding. Along with Hermione and Ron, they go on their mission to find the remaining Horcruxes (which hold the portions of Voldemort’s soul, keeping him immortal) without the aid of the Order of the Phoenix or Dumbledore’s Army. The story gets off to an exciting start immediately, as we are plunged into a world of darkness and sorrow, as Death Eaters have infiltrated the Ministry and magical families without the right blood connections are suspected and Muggle-born folk are seen as dirty and animal-like. The book wins the title of darkest yet, as death is a constant companion through the story, with many characters facing their ends.

The darkness continues throughout the middle section of the book, as our trio are cut off from the normal world they know and the characters we have come to love. This section may be slow in comparison, but it is needed for all the backstory and for isolating Harry in his hero status, before the final climax, not only to the book but to the entire saga. A lot of the humour for which Rowling is known has to be absent from this part, dark as it is, because we can’t be allowed too much relief at this point. However, when you reach the last 200 pages, you will not want to put the book down or stop reading, as you race through the excitement of the finale. It is an exhilarating read that explains everything and reaches its thrilling conclusion. There is laughter, sadness, revelation, love, loyalty, courage, nobility, death and resolution. What more can you ask for?

I know there are some that decry the popularity of the books, the effects on the book retail industry, the writing style of Rowling (and her excess use of adverbs), the fact that they are for children, but they are missing the point. The books are deliriously entertaining stories, and that is the most important factor. The delightful characters, the thrilling plots, the amazing singular vision (obviously in place from the first word of the first book), the humour, the magic have all provided hours of entertainment for many people, myself included, and, while I will miss the them (I felt a little empty after finishing this book, knowing that there was no more), I was filled with a happiness at having read it all and was thoroughly entertained throughout. JK Rowling, thank you.

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Film Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film posterThere are many aspects of the Harry Potter films that have got darker as they have progressed, to be expected from a series about the rise of a dark wizard who killed the hero’s parents, with the last film including the onscreen death of an albeit minor character. And this doesn’t even mention the darkness of Daniel Radcliffe’e eyebrows. But the fifth film has the darkest yet – the sight of Dudley Dursley as a hoodie in training. Scary.

The film opens with Harry and Dudders being attacked by two Dementors in Little Whinging; Harry uses a Patronus charm to repel them, only to receive a letter from the Ministry of Magic telling him that he has been expelled from Hogwarts and has to attend a hearing at the Ministry about it. Before that happens, he is taken to a secret house belonging to Sirius Black by other members of the Order of the Phoenix (Moody, Lupin, and new characters Kingsley Shacklebolt and Tonks). There, talk is of the return of Voldermort and keeping Harry safe; he wants to fight, something that makes Sirius happy but nobody else.

Arthur Weasley takes Harry to the hearing (the set design for the Ministry of Magic is quite spectacular), which has been abruptly moved up the schedule. Even though it looks like Fudge is trying to railroad Harry, Dumbledore turns up to save the day, even though he refuses to talk to Harry afterwards. Harry returns to school, but is greeted by cold shoulders of school mates who believe the Ministry-enforced line of the Daily Prophet, which suggests that Harry is lying and Dumbledore is an idiot for believing him.

Life at school isn’t helped by the introduction of a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the Under Secretary of the Ministry, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton in wonderful form as the pink-suited smiling evil woman who makes you glad you are not at school anymore). When they are told that their Defense classes will be theoretical from now on, Hermione persuades the only person with practical experience to teach them how to fight: Harry.

Although lacking confidence, Harry turns out to be a good teacher, and the relationship with Cho Chang blossoms, while their group (Dumbledore’s Army) avoids Umbridge (now Inquisitor) and her Slytherin-packed group of schoolchildren enforcers, until the DA is betrayed. This leads to Dumbledore being accused of leading this rebellion – he assumes the guilt but escapes Hogwarts, leaving Umbridge to become Headmistress. Thanks to some quick thinking from both Hermione and Ron, they escape in order to act on the visions Harry has been receiving from Voldemort’s brain, leading to the fight for what Voldemort has been seeking and what the Order of the Phoenix has been protecting …

The fifth film in the Harry Potter series is definitely as good as the last two have been. However, it seems that they took the ‘darkest yet’ theme too far in the visual aspect of the movie. The film itself is very dark in colour – the bright lights seem to have avoided the entirety of the movie, with the dark sets of the Ministry and the school only occasionally being alleviated by the lightness of the scenes in the Room of Requirement. Matching this with the absence of much of the character-based humour of the previous instalments (and the books) makes for a tonal change that doesn’t fully grasp the full nature of the books. Yes, the books are getting more serious, but that doesn’t make them po-faced plot machines.

The darkness of the visuals doesn’t help with the director’s handling of the action and the magic of the films. The climactic showdown at the end is muddied by the dark visual palette, which, as well as condensing the action, doesn’t allow it to punch its way out of the ‘serious’ constrictions of the film itself. There is some hint of the magic (members of the DA producing their patronuses) but the flourishes are few and far between. Yates doesn’t appear to be a visually gifted director, which is a shame for a movie that cries out for it (see my adoration of the Alfonso Cuaron-directed third film).

Where Yates succeeds admirably (along with the well-written and slimmed-down script by new-to-the-series Michael Goldenberg) is in the character moments – the actors are allowed to shine in their interaction with each other, making the film come alive. The adults involved, most with very little to do in this film, all wring as much out of their moments as possible (Staunton having the most fun with her large screen time, but Rickman shining as Snape as always); particularly affecting is the interplay between Radcliffe and Oldman, who make the Harry–Sirius relationship completely believable. Oldman has a lot of fun with his rogueish character, particularly the skilful yet dazzling use of a wand in the final showdown.

As with the last film, the book had to be chopped down considerably to become a film (even at over two hours, it crams everything in to a fast running time), meaning that a lot is left out for fans of the book and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have little to do as Hermione and Ron. Admittedly, this is Harry’s story (as they all are) and film prefers the arc of a single protagonist, but these three are very much the heart of the series. Another factor, as mentioned in my run up to this review, is that the specifics that are left out indicate aspects which are not important for the final book – there is no discussion about the similarity between Harry and Neville in the prediction that occurs in the book, suggesting that it was a red herring.

Taken as a film in its own right, the fifth film is still and enjoyable and exciting spectacle; the actors are fully immersed in their roles, the sense of doom (both from the Death Eaters and the Ministry, with its allusion to 1984) is palpable, the world in which they habit feels real and believable and the pace of the story leaves you breathless and eager for more. It’s not perfect, and I have my doubts about Yates as the helmer for the next film, but I want to watch it again, which shows you he must have done something right. Now, the only question remains is why the Ministry has a room full of crystal balls on thousands of very high shelves but seemingly no magical protection in case one of the shelves gets accidentally knocked over …

Rating: DAVE

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More reflections on Harry Potter films

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film poster(When I said tomorrow, I obviously meant the day after the day after tomorrow. You knew that.)

The third film is where things begin to click and is my personal favourite. It is utterly charming – Aunt Marge is still floating in the sky when we see Harry leave the Dursleys; Stan looking around the corner of the bus to where Harry can see the dog; the fun of the Whomping Willow used to show the passage of time throughout the film (the film may only be a few hours, but it relates to 8 months); the use of moving wizard images of Sirius Black on the newspaper and the posters – and the film is infused with humour and fun: Tom at the Leaky Cauldron; ‘Room Service!’, the boggart scene; ‘You tell those spiders, Ron.’

The introduction of two characters that are so endearing and so linked to Harry’s family, in the forms of Sirius and Remus Lupin, also make this film a particularly warm film. It allows the film to connect with us via the characters. The actors are all very enjoyable – Oldman, Thewlis, Snape, Smith – but not everyone is perfect. Gambon is okay, but I’ll always see Harris as Albus (even though Gambon seems to adhere to the more flaky character of the book version of Dumbledore). Julie Christie has a very silly accent as Rosemerta. And there is the bizarre appearance of a large black boy in Harry’s class that we’ve never seen before who gets all the ominous exposition lines in a scene. What’s worse, he delivers them really badly, and he has an abnormally low voice for someone his age. The need to add ‘colour’ to the school was one of the few wrong decisions in this movie.

The most wonderful aspect of this film is the visual delight and sense of magic that pervades the whole fabric of the film. Cuaron uses CGI wonderfully, to illuminate a world that is like our own but is decidedly not. There is always something to remind you in the background that this is not our world, and that is wonderful thing. The films should exude this fantasy element, not as the defining characteristic but as part of the scenery. One of the worries I have about Order of the Phoenix was a quote from the director David Yates, saying he was brought in to make it more real. That is completely missing the point of the magical world that JK Rowling has created. If I want a searing political drama, I’ll watch that. I want to watch a film about a young wizard and his battle against evil.

The fourth film is a cracking little thriller – which means that lots of things have to be dropped from the book, but that is inevitable and okay – that is a lot of fun, even if it lacks a lot of the magic of Cuaron’s visual stylism. Everyone gets better in the acting stakes, and there is the sense of darkness that we are promised. However, having a film where someone escapes from Azkaban and not explained AT ALL after the film where the whole point was about how impossible to escape from there seems that the thriller element overtook explaining all the nuances that are in the book. In fact, it would seem that if you compare the book and the film, the film will tell you which parts aren’t important for the final book because of their absence. If it’s not important enough to be in the film, then it doesn’t matter to the denouement.

Which brings us up to date, in preparation for the fifth film, ‘the darkest yet’. As an obvious fan, I’m looking forward to it, so will enjoy it anyway. I just hope that it will be a good film in its own right. I’ll share my thoughts when I’ve seen it.

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