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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (2/26/13) 3:54am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Man, this was exhausting.  Don't expect any more WMUs of this length/magnitude for quite some time.]

Movies:  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
This is the fifth movie in the Harry Potter series.

Sadly, I won't have as much to say about the second half of the Harry Potter series as I did about the first.  By the time I had reached these movies, I was in much more of a hurry to finish the series before our Fandom performance, and so I took fewer notes on them.  On top of that, some time has now passed since I've seen the films, and it's all starting to blend together in my memory.

But still, I do recall that Order of the Phoenix felt like things were back on track.  It had a nice, direct start with the confrontation with Dudley in the schoolyard, and immediately things feel a lot more lived-in and detailed than they did in Goblet of Fire.  The hallway where they confront the Dementor, for example, reads like a location they just happened to find in the real world, down to its sickly-colored walls and cheap fluorescent lights.

This definitely pays off when we see our first shots of London in the series.  From the opening shots of Sorcerer's Stone, with Dumbledore magically yanking out all the lights along a quiet suburban street, this series has been all about how a world of magic exists right under the noses of the "Muggle" world, but seeing the wizards fly their broomsticks over the Thames really brings that home anew, after the first four films mostly stayed in that self-contained world around Hogwarts.

And this expansion into the larger world is part of what I like about Phoenix.  This movie does a great job of broadening the scope of the story.  Even Azkaban, my favorite of the films, plays like a chamber piece, existing in a world of about a dozen people, where the main thing at stake is that Voldemort might Kill Harry and then, y'know, do bad stuff to unseen people.  Phoenix is the movie where consequences start landing on *everybody*.

It's great to see Hogwarts itself threatened.  And it's great that they ground that emotionally with that heartbreaking scene where Trelawney gets fired.  So not only is this beloved institution in danger, but this poses a threat to all the characters we've come to love as well.  And not only that, but it feels, to me, like a grounded and relatable threat -- after a decade or so of seeing government get more police-state-like, the Ministry of Magic's terrified reactions are chillingly credible.

Meanwhile, magic definitely steps up a notch with the giant battle in the Department of Mysteries.  The simple addition of Death Eaters who can quasi-disapparate into coils of black smoke makes this fight scene more dynamic and frightening than any that have preceded it.  (If your enemy can suddenly *poof* into smoke and reappear behind you, combat strategy changes markedly.)  And, of course, killing off a well-liked secondary character emphasizes the rising stakes of the story.

Also meanwhile, the occlumency-lessons subplot shows us that there's a whole new form of threat to deal with: Voldemort might invade Harry's mind.  It's great to see a new form of threat appear, and it's great that this threat, unlike the broadly-scoped ones we've already seen, is narrowly focussed just on Harry and Voldemort.

And I do love that Harry himself seems to get more active (or alternately, 'less re-active') with every film.  Having him take charge of the "Dumbledore's Army" class strikes me as a natural evolution of the character, and a wonderfully logical plot development.

Really, my only sharp disappointment with Phoenix is that there was no cute gimmick for the closing credits.  Azkaban had its Marauder's Map, and Goblet had its charred, floating scraps of paper -- wouldn't it have been a no-brainer to do the Phoenix closing credits as a series of framed Ministry of Magic proclamations?

So I guess the question is, why don't I like Phoenix as much as, say, Azkaban?  My gut instinct is that, while structurally this film is doing everything it needs to for the series, taking on its own merits, it's doing a lot of things that are good-but-not-great.  It's got teen-drama subplots, but nothing on the level of Newell's deft work in Goblet.  It's got decent special effects -- no clunker mistakes like in Columbus's films -- but nothing as confidently tossed off as Inflated Background Marge in Azkaban.

It's just the solid, competently-built step that gets us from the disappointing misfire of Goblet to the really strong films that end the series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
This is the sixth movie in the Harry Potter series.

If you're doing a long-term genre story, always kill the wizard.  Generally speaking: set up somebody who has massive supernatural powers, have him help our heroes out of countless jams, make it clear that the wizard's powers were enough to just *barely* save the heroes from these perilous foes, and then: kill the wizard.  It heightens the danger tremendously:  "Oh no, now we have to face the same threats *without* a max-level wizard on our side!"  It makes the forces of darkness seem more powerful:  "Jeez, now they're powerful enough to kill a wizard!"  And it heightens the personal stakes: "They killed my friend!  NOW THIS IS PERSONAL."

So of *course* Dumbledore dies.  I wound up having this spoiled for me before reading it[1], but I'm kicking myself for not having seen it coming.  Still, I was happy to see J. K. Rowling giving the story what it needed. 

It makes total sense for this to happen here.  In the sixth film, things get very dark indeed -- both literally (with the sickly yellow/black color palette, I kept wondering if I'd mis-adjusted the settings on my television) and plot-wise.  At this point, it's like the bad guys aren't even funny any more, and we don't see much of the "actor delighting in playing a character who's so deliciously bad."  (Draco certainly doesn't enjoy getting the task of killing Albus Dumbledore.)

Instead, we see gruesome and horrible things happen.  We don't get to really feel any detachment at the whimsical movie villainy -- and to drive this feeling home, we see the villains acting not on Hogwarts or Hogsmeade, but on real-life London.  The attack on the Millennium Bridge is horrifying -- and recall that Londoners were at this point still reeling from the 7/7 attacks, so I can imagine that sequence hitting a raw nerve at home.  (Side note: I wish LOST had done something like this, but I suppose they never had the budget for a smoke monster attacking New York.)

Meanwhile, by this point in the series, the three principals work brilliantly together.[2]  They've had a chance to establish the simple, cartoony versions of their characters in the first couple of films, and they've had the chance to give them depth, shading, and nuaunce in the subsequent ones.[3]  For the most part, they talk to each other naturally, like old friends, in a way that films rarely get right.[4]

So, in yet another film, the Harry-and-Ron-and-Hermione story ends up grounding the whole effort.  Crazy stuff is happening, but we're following these three relatable people through it.

And the world they are occupying is fairly convincing in this installment.  Most notably, the Pensieve sequences, with elaborate sets emerging from whorls of black, diffusing ink, are so beautifully done, and have such a strong internal consistency, that you quickly accept that, yes, this is how it looks when you enter a Pensieve.  Adding the same effect to the closing credits was a lovely final touch.

Honestly, I feel like this is the film where David Yates was taking notes on all of the earlier films.  He's no equal to Cuarón when it comes to using effects convincingly, but he's making a far better effort than Newell or (*shudder*) Columbus did.  And he's not up to Newell's level in telling stories about teen drama, but he's doing that better than Cuarón or (*shudder*) Columbus did.

Generally, though, the gathering momentum and strength of the series is on his side, and the director's solid work adds up to a very, very engaging movie.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One
This is the seventh movie in the Harry Potter series.

I was worried about this one.  I had vague memories of the book it's based on, and I recalled that the first half of Deathly Hallows was comparable to the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, in that it showed us the heroes wandering around the countryside, and that, while they had a clear goal, they weren't exactly in breathless pursuit of that goal.

But for the most part, they make this work.

The main engine here is just how much imminent danger the principals are in from pretty much the first frame.  Rowling starts killing off secondary characters with almost George-R.-R.-Martin-like abandon in this book, so we know Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in trouble.  And the threats feel grittier, now.  We don't actually see much of Voldemort's eeeeevil posturing in CGI-y surroundings.  Instead, we get, say, the attack in the London café, which is quick and brutal, in a setting that grimy and shabby and real.

The threats are unrelenting, but the story avoids, almost miraculously, getting stuck in one gear.  It's a brilliant structural choice to bring in Bill Weasley's wedding.  We get one little breather -- one happy little moment in our heroes' lives -- before the whole thing gets burned to the ground by the Death Eaters and we're plunged back into darkness.  And then subsequent threats have different sorts of feelings: whereas the wedding disaster was a giant action sequence, the silent confrontation at the edge of the spell-protected campsite is a slow, silent nail-biter.

That said, Yates doesn't bat a thousand in these sequences.  For instance, the car chase with Hagrid's motorcycle is exciting, but Yates doesn't put it together so it has a cohesive sense of geography.  He cuts quickly, so there are no long takes that can build tension. Eventually, stuff is flying around and hitting other stuff, and as a viewer one feels weirdly detached from the whole affair.  Also, Yates forgets what should be rule #1 of car chases: *always show the damage to the vehicle*.  If your motorcycle smashes into a retaining wall and it looks spotless afterwards, I stop caring about your car chase.

But that's kind of par for the course for Yates, who doesn't do anything spectacularly, but doesn't fail at anything, either.  You'd expect him to produce a car chase that was good enough, exciting enough, but nothing where you forget to blink, and nothing you have to pause and re-watch in wonderment.  He applies his across-the-board competence to a well-structured screenplay with a good cast of actors, and everything turns out alright.

As usual, the Ron-Hermione-Harry story is riveting, mainly because at this point I would happily watch these three characters fill out tax documents.  Even when they're discussing the details of magical phlebotinum, there's a natural ease between the actors, and there's enough history there that there are no 'flat' interactions.  Every line somebody says to somebody else has some nuanced, relationship-y emotion attached to it.

The added scene where Hermione and Harry just share one dance in the middle of the tent is perfect *only* because these characters have been etched in so nicely.  If an average genre production took a three-minute break to let two characters dance, it would be an atrocious bore, just because there wouldn't be enough *to* the characters to make that moment interesting.  Here, we can retreat from everything that's happening, and have one happy moment that varies the tone for a bit, and be content to just spend time with Harry and Hermione.

That said, I wish the "Ron is jealous of Harry" plotline worked better than it does here.  I don't blame Yates for this.  Instead, I think the earlier films dropped the ball -- really, Ron's jealousy needed to be hinted at right from the start[5].  Without the early setup, every time later films allude to the Ron!jealous-rage, it feels like a plot contrivance.  And here, where Ron finally confronting (quite literally) his worst fears about his relationships w/r/t Harry and Hermione... it's frustrating.  I can tell that, technically, the story is doing something good: it's taking a story that's ostensibly about destroying the magical whatsit, and making it *really* about the relationships between three people we care about.  But the scene *ought* to feel like a *payoff* -- like we've seen this jealousy slow-burn through the whole series, and now it's finally coming to a head.  Instead, the emotion feels as forced (even if Rupert Grint does a fine job of acting it) as it does in its earlier appearances in the series.

What's amusing to me is that there are pretty much three stories going in parallel here: the "oh god, H-R-H are going to die" plot, the "teen drama between the leads" plot, and the "trying to destroy the horcruxes" plot.  And as far as I can tell, the first two plots are riveting, while the third one -- the one that's absolutely essential to the overall plot -- feels sort of perfunctory.  Without it, the movie would just be a bunch of people sitting in rooms and not doing much of anything -- yawn -- but this plot still gets lost in the shuffle.  At no point in this series was I clear on how many horcruxes were left, which ones they were, and which ones had already been destroyed.

And honestly, I didn't care much.  It felt like yet another arbitrary, video-game-like plot that mirrored the "ooh, three magical challenges" of Sorcerer's Stone.  Apparently, if they gather the seven horcruxes, then they combine to form the triforce, and Hyrule will be saved.  Okay, fine then.

But those are just minor blemishes on one of my favorite films in the series.  The gathering darkness is perfect -- the movie makes good use of giving us places we've seen before, now somehow barren or ruined, and giving us the other extreme from the safe, happy, brightly-colored classrooms of the first couple films.

Onward to the end!

Side note: at this point, I wonder if the real difference between fantasy and sci-fi is that sci-fi starts with one impossible thing and works out the implications, whereas fantasy just repeatedly asks "what impossible thing would be cool here?"  It feels like each individual bit of magic in Harry Potter could be explored in entire sci-fi novels, and in many cases, has been (The Stars My Destination is a whole novel about apparating, for example).

Additional side note: the illustration of the Deathly Hallows story might be the coolest thing in the whole damn franchise.  So, emend what I said earlier: David Yates did have one breathtaking sequence in him.

Additional additional side note: they finally figured out subsurface scattering!  Dobby and Kreacher finally have skin that behaves like skin!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two
This is the eighth and final movie in the Harry Potter series.

If part one was the movie that zoomed in close on Harry, Hermione, and Ron and gave them almost unrelenting and narrow attention, part two is the movie where our view expands out to broad, epic storytelling.  I suppose every fantasy epic has to 'square the circle' like this -- that is, it has to find a way to both bring the battle of good versus evil to the biggest, most massive conclusion, and at the same time, to cast all of that away and just focus in on our most important heroes.  Lord of the Rings, of course, bounces back and forth between the massive armies clashing in Mordor and the lone figures of Sam and Frodo climbing the side of Mount Doom.  The Deathly Hallows breaks it down into halves -- the first half is just the heroes; the second half is mostly the giant battle.

Unfortunately, this is where I was in the biggest hurry to finish the series, and took the fewest notes.

I loved a lot of things about this last film.  I loved that we hit the end of the line as far as the darkness of the series.  At this point, even most of the music is gone from the soundtrack.  And it was great to see how many elements from the very beginning are brought back around.  We see Griphook, the gnome we met in the first film, only now we see him through the lens of the last film: quiet, thoughtful, nuanced, and not nice at all.  Of course we bring things back to Hogwarts for the final battle; it was the center of the story for the first six books.  And we re-use characters over and over and over.  Lavender is killed by a werewolf.  Neville gets to save the day by killing Nagini.  Every Death Eater still living converges on the school, and battles every professor they can fit in the frame.  We even get one last glimpse at Harry's parents.

And I loved that they took the time for one last quiet conversation before the end.  In the middle of all the chaos, we get one last scene with Harry and Dumbledore.  We get a jarringly bright white location in the midst of all these near-black sets.  And we get some exposition, sure, but mostly just a chance to watch these characters together, and take a breath with them, and reflect with them on what has happened so far.

I had a few quibbles with the very end.  Generally, I feel like with the end of a story like this, you want the forces of darkness to be winning, and winning, and winning, until the last possible moment, where somehow the good guys turn it around.  (So: the armies of Men are doomed until, by a fantastic stroke of luck, Gollum takes the Ring down to the fires of Mount Doom.)  This story *almost* does that, but towards the end, the good guys get a whole streak of victories, knocking off one horcrux after another -- and putting Voldemort into all sorts of fits -- so that that final confrontation is a tad anticlimactic.       

And yes, the less said about the nineteen-years-later epilog, the better.  In the book it felt like an embarrassing bit of fanfic, and in the movie it was an equally embarrassing example of the limits of makeup effects.  It was cute seeing the central cast playing at dressing like grownups, and I know they were older than the original ages they were playing, but adding nineteen years of age was just beyond what movie magic could do.

But still, that's a perfectly valid ending, having things loop around.  Now it's Harry sending his son off to school.  The world goes on and on.

"The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.  All was well."

For next time:  continuing to listen to the audiobook of Dark Force Rising.  Beyond that... phew, no idea at the moment.  I might actually take a break and watch something that has nothing to do with any shows I'm doing.  (*gasp*) But what?

[1] ... by an animated GIF somebody used as their LiveJournal icon -- it alternated an eye-catching, brightly-colored image with the message "Page 683: SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE".  Aren't people awful?
[2] If I had infinite money, about ten years from now I'd reunite those actors for a project (ideally by Edgar Wright) that had nothing to do with Harry Potter.
[3] I also really appreciate that Daniel Radcliffe started finding idiosyncrasies to give to Harry Potter, who seems written as a kind of standard-order audience surrogate.  Sure, he plays the braveness and virtue, but he also wonderfully plays the character's self-doubt, and he finds this wonderful sense of a young adult who's suffering from a sort of "wonderment fatigue".  In the first film, Harry stared in wide-eyed amazement at each new magical thing.  But even by the third film, his Harry was settling into this drily humorous acceptance: "Okay, here's another batshit thing that is actually real and happening.  Fine."  I feel like that's how you get bits like "I don't want to tapdance!" "You tell those spiders, Ron."
[4] Television has better luck with this, since actors often do wind up working together for years and years.  When a TV show has chemistry like that right off the bat, though -- e.g. the principals in Terriers -- it's a minor miracle.  So we see one of the virtues of doing six films in a row with the same characters.
[5] Or they needed to construct Ron's character *around* that jealousy.  What kind of a guy would feel like his famous best friend would betray him?  What are *other* traits that such a person would have?

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