Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

For franchises that have built up an enormous audience, filming sequels back-to-back seems like a smart move to save on production costs and make multiple movies at once, which are virtually guaranteed to be cash cows.  Critters 3 and Critters 4 are probably the best examples of this, but what about the sequels to Back to the Future, The Matrix, and Pirates of the Caribbean?  They range from fine (but nowhere near as good as the original) to implausibly disappointing to damn near unwatchable --- in that order.  Sure, they made money, but --- aside from the huge gambles that were the Kill Bill and Lord of the Rings productions --- this method usually winds up disappointing fans.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 did a good job of setting the stage, but it felt incomplete...because it was.  Will that mean that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 will suffer the same fate, or will it manage to do what so many series finales fail to accomplish --- end with a bang?

Where were we?  Oh, yes.  Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his wizard buddies are on the run from Mister Frowny Face, AKA Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and his Frowny minions.  Voldie has broken his soul into seven parts and hidden the parts all over the globe (or, at least England) in six ordinary objects, with Part 7 being in himself.  Why?  This allows him to survive deadly attacks, as long as part of his soul still exists.  In Part 1, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) had managed to find a way to destroy these soul-holders (that's horcruxes, in wizard-speak) and were left with only three to find and destroy before Voldie could be killed for realz.
"No" means no, Voldemort.  Harry doesn't have to "cross wands" with you.

So...they do that.  They wind up back in Hogwarts wizard school because one of the horcruxes is there; Voldie's people learn about this almost immediately, surround the school, and threaten to kill everyone in the school if they do not hand over Potter.  Since this is a tale of good vs. evil, the Order of the Phoenix (the good guys) show up to protect Harry, Hogwarts, and the students against Voldie and his terrible hordes.  In tough times like these, passions flare, characters die, and special effects take center stage.  You want to see some epic wizard battles?  This is the movie to watch.
I cannot believe that Alice Cooper and John Williams didn't collaborate on a re-recording of "School's Out"

The acting in this final Harry Potter is the best in the series in some ways, and emblematic of its recurring problems in others.  I thought Daniel Radcliffe really stepped up in this movie and held his own in several emotional scenes.  Emma Watson was good as usual, and Rupert Grint --- well, he seemed to have a lot fewer lines.  These three aren't unbelievably fantastic, but they do a great job playing their parts and reacting to their stellar supporting cast.  This film finally gives Ralph Fiennes some screen-time, and he makes the most of it; I won't say this is his best work, but he is both deplorable and pitiable as the mustache-twirling (if he had a nose to hang a 'stache on) villain.  Fans have been waiting for a decade to see Voldemort at his worst, and Fiennes doesn't disappoint.  Similarly, Alan Rickman's Snape character was finally given some emotional depth past his irrational hatred of Harry, and it turned out to be a surprisingly effective scene.

The supporting cast, as always, is distinguished, but doesn't get nearly enough attention to do justice to their talent.  Maggie Smith and the young Bonnie Wright get probably the most attention --- and it is well deserved for Smith --- but Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Jim Broadbent, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Ciaran Hinds, and Robbie Coltrane have precious little to work with.  I get it, I get it...they're taking character parts to participate in this franchise, but it always makes me sad to see so much talent get stuck in bit parts.  On the bright side, Warwick Davis pulled off a dual-role performance pretty well and Helena Bonham Carter was memorable in her small role, once again.  I was disappointed that Tom Felton's performance took a few steps back, making his character seem like the weenie he was four or five years ago; his part was relatively small in the film, but I would have liked a little less slapstick from him.  Perhaps that disappointment is balanced by the surprisingly effective performances in small parts by Evanna Lynch and Matthew Lewis; both have been in the series for years as minor players, but they impressed me with more visible parts here.  Oh, and as a fan of kinetic 90s British cinema, I was happy to see Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) and Nick Moran (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) in small roles.
Matthew Lewis had to fight (and, presumably, lose) for his screen time

While this was never going to be a movie about the acting, it sure was nice to see that the cast wasn't Transformers-bad.  But that's just a pleasant bonus.  This is the movie that was finally going to fulfill the promise of an all-out wizard battle, with the forces of good taking on the hordes of evil.  And you know what?  It totally delivered on that promise.  This is, by far, the most action-packed Harry Potter film and, because it is the logical conclusion of a decade-long story, it feels very organic.  Most of the time, when a movie opts for the "all action" route, the story gets left behind in favor of bloody explosions.  The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 keeps a pretty fast pace, kills boatloads of witches and wizards, but still has many touching character moments.  More important than all that, this movie acts as a ridiculously satisfying conclusion to the series; it's easy enough for casual viewers to understand, but most of the spells and characters and magical creatures are taken from the earlier films, treating longtime fans by adding a layer to the film that is not always explained explicitly in the script.

There are doubtlessly many fans of the book that are upset over some of the changes that director David Yates made to the story.  Get over it, nerds (says the pot).  Film and prose are different mediums, and overly reverential adaptations usually lead to lifeless movies (The Watchmen, anyone?).  I liked the changes and omissions in this film; they worked with what had been established in the earlier movies, and that's what counts.  I have my own issues with parts of the film, of course.  I was hoping to see more creative wizard fights, like the Dumbledore vs. Voldemort battle that ended The Order of the Phoenix.  Sure, the battle scenes were hectic and cool, but in a world with so much potential for creativity, I thought I would see more colorful uses of magic.  The more I think about that, the more disappointed I am.  As for the epilogue...I'm not a huge fan, even though I see the storytelling value of coming full-circle; I think a few more minutes of Harry pondering Snape's motives would have made that final scene truly powerful, but it's still pretty decent, even if it's not my cup of tea.  I'm also not sure how well the two parts of this story will stand up on their own as time goes on; I just re-watched Part 1 this week, so the story was fresh in my mind, but will I eventually go back and watch Part 2 on its own?  I have no idea.
Squiggly lights?  What happened to fire demons, dude?

That is just me nitpicking, though.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 manages to do an astounding number of things right.  For starters, it's the shortest film in the series, and it spends precious little time with Harry and his friends safe from harm; this is definitely the most exciting movie in the series.  The acting is all good, and there are a number of tear-jerking moments, which is something you rarely see in a film with so much action.  The destruction of Hogwarts was pretty awesome and the characters all looked like they had been fighting in rubble for days.  This film should go down as one of the best final chapters of any franchise.  It was violent, cute, and cathartic in a major way.  Congrats, HP crew.  This is how you tell a satisfying ending.

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