Friday, July 29, 2011

HARRY POTTER Ends, And Danny Weighs In


- The latest and final Harry Potter flick is certainly among the best of the movie adaptations of the top-selling book series. After a somewhat plodding Part 1., Part 2. finally gets around to the good stuff - giant battles, big stakes, and an overall feeling of epic finality. This, finally, is it for Harry Potter and friends, and with that notion firmly established, the movie takes on a weight and level of gravitas that we'd only occasionally seen from these movies before.

All in all, this final Potter gets closer than a lot of its predecessors towards feeling like a great adventure movie in and of itself. This film series has always been a little frustrating for me, because while I've enjoyed most of the Potter films, and have immensely enjoyed one or two of them in particular, I've always been a bit baffled by the superlative reactions to them from the rabid Potter fanbase. The fact is: for those who have a huge affinity for the books, there is a subset of those fans - a large one - that enjoys these movies on a whole other level than everyone else. They thrill to see their favorite characters and scenes from the books up on screen, and are happy to fill in all of the missing story bits in the movies with what they already know from the books. For these fans, seeing a new Potter movie is simply a way to revisit a universe and characters that they love - and they are more than content when the movies end up being a sort of "greatest hits" version of the source material. I get that, to a point. But I also feel like the Potter movies have rarely 100% worked as standalone films. There is too much key information that's left out or ultra-condensed, too many characters that are given short shrift, and too many key plot points that are glossed over in the name of sprinting to The End.

The final Potter, to its credit, has enough moments of pure coolness that it's hard to dwell too much on the details. Sure, I couldn't quite wrap my head around Voldemoort or what he was trying to accomplish, or why Harry and Ginnie Weasley are still an item, or how Harry (spoiler alert) ends up dying and then coming back to life to save the day. But it was mostly okay, because there were cool speeches given by great actors, lots of whiz-bang action, and some epic set pieces with giant trolls, massive armies, and all sorts of cool magic stuff going on.

And I've said it before, but I'll say it again. It really is remarkable how great the former child-actors cast in the lead Potter roles have become. Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson, and Rupert Gint have all evolved into damn good actors - and great action-movie actors to boot. They can each give an inspirational speech, toss off a well-timed one-liner, and crack a quip with the best of 'em. And it really is with the best of 'em, because as always, the lineup of awesome, veteran thespians really shines in this series, and in this film in particular. Alan Rickman, for one, is basically always great, but he's long been a standout in this series as Severus Snape. He gets to have some big moments in this final film, and his sheer charisma and badassery threatens to overshadow even Ralph Fiennes' villainous turn as Lord Voldemort. Fiennes does a great job though as well, hissing and cackling his way towards being a classic ubervillain. Even Maggie Smith, who has only occasionally had moments to shine in this series, gets some great little bits where she gets to kick some ass, stiff upper lip mostly intact. Helena Bonham Carter is another actress who's basically always fantastic, and really, is there anyone alive better equipped to play gothy scream-queen Bellatrix? I also really enjoyed seeing Kelly MacDonald, who's been so great on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, pop up as a ghost who gives Harry a key piece of information. And of course, Michael Gambon is always good as everyone' favorite gay wizard, Dumbledore.

What this movie really does well is that everyone gets their little moment. Harry of course is the star, but Ron and Hermione have their big romantic beat, Luna Lovegood does her thing, Draco Malfoy has a couple final moments of evilness, and Neville Longbottom emerges as an underdog scene-stealer. I only wish that some of these characters had had a better build-up earlier in the series. Matthew Lewis does such a good job making Neville likable that you can't help but cheer for him, but, um, where was this guy in the last couple of movies? I know, I know, readers of the books know and love Neville already, but in the movies, it felt like this potentially great character came out of nowhere, and because of that, his big moments, while fun, could have been even better with the right build-up. Same goes for the aforementioned Harry / Ginny romance - which actually becomes a big deal at the end of the film, because it's key to the story's flashforward epilogue. I mean, from these movies alone, it's hard for me to grasp why Harry, at this point, isn't insanely jealous of Ron and Hermione. Why would he ever choose the bland Ginny over kickass Hermione? Given that the epilogue shows Harry and Ginny as being fated to be together, you wish there was a bit more to that particular relationship.

Speaking of which, I don't know if I'm alone with this, but to me the biggest single story gap in these films is the rivalry between Harry and Voldemoort. I know - it's been built up for eight movies - their final showdown has been a longtime coming. But I just rarely got a true sense from these movies that Harry vs. Voldemoort was an EPIC, HUGE, WORLD-SHAKING battle-in-the-making. I never quite got why exactly the guy hated Harry so damn much, or really, what his deal was anyways. Voldemoort isn't supposed to be an all-encompassing evil entity like Sauron in LOTR, his beef with Harry is much more personal. And yet I never really got that sheer hatred from the character. And the fact that the final battle in this film ends with some Scooby Doo-esque trickery on Harry's part didn't help things any. One of the weakest scenes in the film, to me, was the post-battle talk between Harry and friends, in which Harry offers up a convoluted and, let's face it, pretty lame explanation of how he managed to take down the dark one. Overall, the pacing of the film felt a little off at times. The movie gets off to a rather slow start, with Harry and co. having a somewhat confusing conversation with the not-previously-seen brother of Dumbledore. But later on, when the big battle at Hogwarts begins, the whole thing feels a bit rushed, with a lot going on but not a ton of time given to us to absorb it all and take in the sheer size and scope of the conflict.

Still, I did really enjoy the movie overall, and I couldn't help but admire this whole world that's onscreen - clearly but a taste of JK Rowling's universe from the books. I really do like the characters, the settings, the mythology - but I always come away a bit frustrated that so much is lost in translation. I always feel like I'm getting a cliffnotes version when watching the movies, and I think that really keeps these films from being on par with truly *great* fantasy-adventure franchises like Lord of the Rings. Everthing just feels *adapted,* and as I watched this movie I couldn't help but feel like I was watching something that was derived from something else, and not something that completely stands up on its own merits. It's a subtle but important distinction, I think, between something like Star Wars, that hints at this whole universe that exists around the movies, and the Harry Potter films, where it often feels like key explanations, key plot points, are missing from the scripts, where there is that tangible void.

Nonetheless, for sheer spectacle, and as a last hurrah for some great characters played by some fantastic actors, this final Potter definitely works as a crowd-pleaser. You do have to give a lot of credit to this film series for persisting at such a relatively high quality level, all while keeping an internal continuity, in terms of story, cast, and production. It's interesting though - to see how the collective conciousness of the pop-culture universe functions. There is some sort of validation in seeing characters from books, comics, etc. up on the big screen - and no matter how great the source material is, people love seeing those same stories adapted into movies, even knowing that films can't always do them justice. Personally, I want movies that work as movies. This series worked well, but let's not confuse a love for the source material with a love for the movies in and of themselves. That said, this is a very solid closer to the series. The Harry Potter faithful will love it. The rest will appreciate it as solid filmmaking with great casting and fun action that is pretty damn good, but no, not quite as awesome as it could have been.

My Grade: B+

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