Friday, December 3, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I proves that it's possible to both like and be disappointed in a movie at the same time. Reducing things to my base gut reaction, yes, it's a good film, very good at moments. One only needs look at the box office hauls for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Alice in Wonderland to see that the vast majority of the public doesn't even demand that much, so maybe taking Deathly Hallows to task is just looking a gift horse in the mouth. I mean, a non-Pixar, non-Christopher Nolan blockbuster is competently made! What does that happen, like, three, four times a year?

Still though, that damn two-movie split. I said when they first announced it that I didn't like it and nothing about actually seeing the first movie has changed my mind. Deathly Hallows as written by J.K. Rowling is a muscular and thrilling book, easily my favorite of the series (keep in mind this is coming from someone who was always iffy on the Hardy Boys-with-wizards style magical mysteries of the first several novels and generally prefers darker, more adventurous fantasy, so it should come as no surprise that the darkest, most adventurous Potter book is my favorite), and I think this could have been the first Harry Potter with legitimate potential at being one of the top ten films of its year if it were the complete story. As is, it's just pretty good.

Please note that I'm not talking about the fact that this first movie has an abrupt ending and we'll have to wait six months for the finale; I agree with Potter fanboys that that's a silly, bogus complaint that makes me roll my eyes every time I read it. There'll be half a movie for six months then there'll be a complete movie for the next trillion years. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that the this first film's pacing is slack, especially in the middle, and unless Part II is sincerely brilliant then we'll have sacrificed a gripping and propulsive finale for one that wears out its welcome. The Battle of Hogwarts should have come barreling down like a freight train, refusing to let you catch your breath; now I fear it's going to arrive accompanied by the sensation of "thank god, finally."

(As you can probably tell, I am in general not a fan of filler. I like that so many TV shows these days are turning to 12 or 13-episode seasons in lieu of the traditional 22-episode model. Less to watch per year, but I think it promotes stronger storytelling.)

But like I said, the better part of what's here is good, so I don't wanna sound like I'm taking a shit on Deathly Hallows: Part I. After the Death Eaters' assassination of Dumbledore and successful coup against the Ministry of Magic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, now wanted dead or alive, are on the run to find the Horcruxes, the destruction of which will undo Voldemort's invincibility. This gives the movie a road trip vibe, a treasure hunt vibe, and a Fugitive-style "on the run" vibe which all blend into an entertaining whole giving room for plenty of character interaction and organic action scenes that don't feel embarrassingly shoehorned in like the attack on the Weasley house in Half-Blood Prince. It also doesn't hurt that the cinematography is fucking beautiful, warranting an Academy Award nomination.

The absence of Hogwarts and its star-studded faculty means that the movie is carried more by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson than any in the series to date. I mean, they've always been first billed and they've always been the main characters, but they've been helped along for a decade now by the fact that more often than not they're sharing the screen with one or more of the best British actors alive. Think about it; what was the most boring part of Sorcerer's Stone? The climax, of course. And why was that? Because Harry, Ron, and Hermione were alone. But they've had nine years and seven movies to hone their craft and I'd say they've developed into pretty good actors. Radcliffe does a fine job bringing exhaustion and desperation to Harry Potter, making the rare moments of levity feel like enormous sighs of relief.

But still, there's no lack of background talent in Deathly Hallows — Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy, Brendan Gleeson, Alan Rickman, John Hurt, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Griffiths, and Warwick Davis all put in appearances ranging from two to ten minutes apiece (although Maggie Smith's sublime Professor McGonagall is sadly missing in action) and they all do fine work. Rickman in particular has a terrific scene in the film's opening minutes where he says more with one stony, unyielding facial expression than most actors could with pages of monologues and shows why the fact that he's never received an Academy Award nomination is a fucking embarrassment.

All the Hogwarts students return too, albeit in tiny parts until the next film, most appearing in exactly one scene on the Hogwarts Express. Years from now looking back on the Potter series I think the most impressive thing will be the dozens upon dozens of cast members they've held onto for ten years and eight films, the only major recast being Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris's death between Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. I mean, Christopher Nolan couldn't even hang onto all of five recurring characters between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; the Potter producers have hung onto somewhere close to a hundred. Words can't express how much emotional impact would be lost if Radcliffe or Grint or Watson had been swapped out at some point and we were forced to watch some unwelcome impostor (even one who was as good or better an actor), not to mention Rickman, or Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy.

The movie as a whole has an admirably oppressive and joyless air about it, featuring lots of Nazi allegory with its villains and, for a series that's ostensibly youth-oriented, a fairly brutal number of deaths of named heroes. There's blood and murder and implied genocide and dead animals and even one scene of something vaguely resembling nudity which caused parents in the theater to react with hilarious cringing discomfort, because in America it's just fine for little Billy to see torture and internment camps and political assassination but lord knows if he sees Hermione's naked shoulders and back for like three seconds his innocence will be lost forever.

But while I admired the overall vibe I found the threat factor of the non-Voldemort villains to be lacking. For example, there's one scene where (minor spoilers incoming, I guess) the trio breaks into the newly-fascist Ministry of Magic to steal something and winds up being chased by Yaxley, one of Voldemort's top lieutenants. Three kids who haven't even graduated from Hogwarts being run down by a feared enforcer for the most powerful wizard on earth should be terrifying; it should feel like a shark attack in Jaws. But it just kind of... doesn't. It has an almost Saturday morning cartoon chase feel to it. A scene where Voldemort talks to his henchmen is undermined by how terrified of him some of them look. I get that the filmmakers are trying to make Voldemort scary and I agree that he should demand respect and the promise of a threat must always linger, but if his underlings physically shake when he talks to him they just look like little babies.

But overall, despite some issues with the villains and bigger issues with the pacing as the heroes begin wandering aimlessly in the second act, this is a dark, compelling journey that legitimately pushes its protagonists to the breaking point in a way most adventure movies simply don't. It contains moments of genuine excitement and moments of genuine emotion from characters we've grown to care about, and in a purely visual sense it's a gorgeous-looking movie that I'd stack up against literally anything released in 2010. I would never go so far as to call it the Empire Strikes Back of Harry Potter like some critics have dared, but it's sure as hell not its Attack of the Clones either.

3 Stars out of 5

However, there is one more thing we must discuss, one for the initiated only. I'm talkin' about deaths, baby! Click beyond the jump for some very "deathly" spoilers.

Charity Burbage: This is a quality scene whichever way you cut it, arguably the most chilling Rowling ever wrote, but it's even better on the screen thanks to the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman. As a side note, doesn't it really seem like the film's title should have come up after "Nagini, dinner." rather than, uh, wherever the fuck it was? Winner — the film.

Hedwig: They actually changed the circumstances of this one by having Hedwig flying free and intentionally and stupidly trying to help Harry rather than getting shot up in her cage like some punk, so that, in addition to the visual of her dead little owl body falling down to earth, puts the film one up on its source material. Winner — the film.

Mad-Eye Moody: I get what Rowling was trying to do by having a major death like this take place offscreen, because of course in war you don't see everyone who gets killed do so from your own viewpoint. But film is a different medium than literature and Brendan Gleeson was awesome enough in the role that I think he deserved to portray his final moments. Winner — the book.

Scrimgeour: This one being offscreen on the other hand didn't bother me. I mean, how could it? We barely knew the guy in the movies. In the book the words "Scrimgeour is dead." had a chilling impact. In the movie it was just kind like, that's cool, I guess. Whatever. Rock on. Winner — the book.

Peter Pettigrew: What the fuck? This one didn't even happen at all. Maybe they'll move it to the next movie, but if the final comeuppance for the Potter family's Judas is getting knocked out on a stairway I'll be irked. Winner — the book.

Dobby: This one was handled really well in both versions, doing an impressive job making me look back with kindness on Chamber of Secrets' most irritating element. Hard to pick between Rowling's prose and Radcliffe's performance. If you put a gun to my head I might pick the film just because of the brutal finality of the image of Dobby's burial, but it's close enough that I feel no need to pick and choose. Winner — tie.

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