Friday, July 8, 2011

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It's almost time for the final chapter of the Harry Potter series to hit theaters, so it's time for me to re-familiarize myself with the last few films (and review them) before the final wizarding battle.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth film in the series, and in many ways is the turning point in the seven- (or eight-, if you count the Parts 1 and 2 of the final movie separately) part tale.  The kids are starting to look like teenagers (because they were actually becoming teens), we finally get some face time with the (to this point) mysterious villain of the series, Lord Voldemort, and the children are finally old enough to be legitimately accountable for their acting skills.  This is also the first movie that was forced to make drastic changes between the novel and the screenplay, since the book was over 700 pages and the movies from the 300 page novels clocked in at over two hours each.  The Goblet of Fire is my personal favorite book in the series, but that doesn't always translate into liking the screen version, does it?

Like the past few movies, The Goblet of Fire focuses on an entire year of schooling at Hogwarts, and the trials and tribulations that young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) go through in their fourth year.  This year offers something unusual, though.  In an ongoing effort to make the wizarding world a friendlier place, the legendary Triwizard Tournament is set to be held at Hogwarts; the chosen champions from three schools will compete in a series of tests, with the winner gaining fame for him or herself and honor for their school.  That means that a sizable group of students from the vaguely French Beauxbatons Academy of Magic and the vaguely Eastern European Durmstrang Institute will be staying at Hogwarts this year.  This shouldn't directly affect Harry, since he is under the age restriction to compete, but his name is selected --- along with champions from Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts.  It's called Triwizard for a reason; this fourth selection is a bad omen, because someone very sneaky and powerful had to be responsible for it.  But why would someone want to arrange for Harry to compete in the Tournament?  Perhaps because it is extremely dangerous.  Perhaps there is another reason.  Nevertheless, Harry has to worry about this on top of all his normal studies.  This year is actually worse for him than usual, because his selection makes him notorious within the school and with his friends as a glory hog; add that to Harry's first real attempts to date a girl, and you have the recipe for an awkward year.
Speaking of awkward...nice suit.

Once again, the acting in this Harry Potter is a marked improvement over its predecessors.  Daniel Radcliffe finally seems to be getting the hang of things and does a good job of playing an awkward teenager.  Emma Watson is given a more complex part this time, and she nails it; her scenes at the dance were great.  Rupert Grint finally seems to be stepping up to the challenge, too, although his improvements are primarily in his comedic timing.  There are a few noteworthy additions to the cast at large in this film, with the most obvious being Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody.  Like the past few guest-starring Hogwarts professors, Gleeson is given a lot to work with, and he clearly has a good time as the eccentric and war-scarred professor.  Ralph Fiennes makes his Potter debut as Lord Voldemort, and he does a good job of being EEE-veel; I'm still not a fan of his noseless character design, but it is taken from the books, so...whatever.  This is also the first time we see Miranda Richardson as the tabloid-writing Rita Skeeter; she is fine, but her parts in the films never approaches her presence in the novels.  David Tennant has a small but important role as a fidgety over-actor.  Two of the other Triwizard competitors have popped up in other films; Clemence Poesy has had a few small American movie roles, and Robert Pattinson has been in...something...I forget what.  Neither is very impressive here, but most supporting child actors aren't.
Foreground: a vampire and a wizard.  Background: ethnic diversity.

The rest of the supporting cast is still around, and as solid as ever.  The teaching staff of Hogwarts is great, as usual, even with limited screen time.  Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, and Warwick Davis are all good, but I really enjoyed some of Alan Rickman's subtle choices, especially how he chooses to reprimand students.  Gary Oldman makes a cameo in a pretty cool special effects scene, but he doesn't get to add much to the overall story.  Similarly, I thought Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs, and Tom Felton were fine in their returning parts, but none really had much to do in this movie (except Felton, who isn't much of an actor yet).  One of the more welcome expansions to an existing role was that of the Weasley twins, played by Oliver and James Phelps; they had been around in the past few movies, but they played a larger part here, and their mutually shared dialogue was endearing.
I think Oliver's the one that blow dries his hair.

This movie was directed my Mike Newell, andI think he did an impressive job editing this movie down to a digestible length.  The pace is pretty quick and it centers on the Triwizard Tournament, at the expense of the typical glimpses into everyday life at Hogwarts.  I liked that choice, as it kept things fresh and made this a very different film than the previous three.  This movie had the best performances from the cast to date; whether that was through his work or because the cast was getting old enough to sharpen their acting chops, I don't know.  This film has a more washed-out look to it, which mirrors the more serious tone that it would take.  Overall, I think he did an admirable job maintaining the spirit of the book while cutting substantial amounts from the film.

This movie marks a lot of firsts for the Harry Potter series.  This is the first time that the kids looked like normal students; they wore street clothes, grew ugly shaggy haircuts, and wore their school uniforms as sloppily as possible.  Incidentally, this movie has my favorite hairstyle for Harry; before this, it was just a mop top, after this it's very neat, but this is the unruly mess I pictured from the books.  This is also the first time that romance reared its head in the Harry Potter series, and it was handled surprisingly well.  This is also the first movie to skip the wizard game of quidditch (yes, it's mentioned, but we don't watch a match); that was always a "wizards have fun" part of the earlier films, but skipping that aids the more serious tone of this movie.  Most importantly, though, this is the first film in the series that makes good on the ever-lingering threat of Lord Voldemort.  Finally, we get to see bad wizards doing bad things, and we even get a wizard duel.  It was all pretty sweet, I have to admit.  I should also point out that one of my favorite pop stars, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, was the lead singer in the Weird Sisters, the wizard rock band that played the Hogwarts dance; fans of Pulp and Radiohead might recognize some of the other band members.  Let it be known, even wizards like to rock.
Jarvis needs to know if you can dance like a hippogriff

As the complete lack of criticism above might indicate, I really liked this movie.  It is definitely my favorite Harry Potter chapter to this point.  A lot of it was done in pretty simple ways; it builds upon the foundations laid in the earlier films.  It's San Antonio Spurs-basic competence, but it works.  Is this a deep movie?  Not particularly.  Will it bring in new viewers into the series?  Probably not.  It is a treat for those that have followed the series and grown up with it.  The Harry Potter franchise has always stood out for making the right decisions on how to adapt its stories, and this was the film that showed that it was possible to adapt a huge book into a regularly-sized film.  This was also the last film that the cast was contractually obligated to make; this could have been the last in the series, or the precursor to an abrupt shift.  Instead, it took the serious tone that The Prisoner of Azkaban hinted at and ran, making this appealing to both the magic-loving innocent in us all and the dark part of us that wants to see bad wizards doing bad things.  Definitely the strongest entry in the series up to this point, and a promising look at things to come.

Oh, I thought up one criticism.  Wizard sports have to be the worst spectator sports ever invented.  All three Triwizard tests had the audience staring at nothing for most of the matches (an empty arena, the surface of a lake, and at the edge of a hedge maze).  Don't even get me started on quidditch.  Wizards need to take a page from muggle sports and build a damn jumbo-tron.

...And, because I love Jarvis Cocker so damn much, I have to include this interview with him.  At the time, he hadn't released any new music in about four years, so it was refreshing to see and hear from him again.  Man, I'm such an Anglophile sometimes.

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