It's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly… MoreIt's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows purely on the grounds of the industrial precedent it created. The financial success of splitting the last and biggest of the books into two instalments led to the same tactic being employed with Twilight and The Hunger Games, regardless of whether their respective source materials actually merited such an approach. For fans and casual viewers alike, the move smacked of wanting to milk as much as possible out of the last drops of a given franchise.
In the case of HP7a (as Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo christened it), we find the franchise finally starting to cut to the chase, beginning the build-up towards the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. Having drawn things out for so long, putting off this inevitable showdown, there is almost a rush to get in everything that is left to be said. Under these circumstances, splitting the book into two films is almost the most logical thing to do, and while not all of it works, it does have a lot of attractive qualities.
The feeling that a lot is being crammed into this final act brings us back to our ongoing comparison with The Lord of the Rings. Many film fans had quibbles with the ending(s) of The Return of the King, and fans of the book were in two minds about some of the omissions, particularly the scourging of the Shire and the death of Saruman (in the theatrical cut). But even taking those as gospel truth - for the moment - Peter Jackson did quite an excellent job of balancing and converging all the different aspects of Middle Earth in the climatic battles - a much better job, in fact, than he managed recently on the third and final Hobbit film.
By contrast, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 has a lot of plot for us to swallow, making it simultanously one of the most satisfying and one of the most impenetrable instalments in the series. If you spent the previous two films crying out for a plot which directly focussed on the return of Voldemort and what his victory could mean for the wider world, you will find yourself openly rejoicing at the fact that this is finally being addressed. Equally, the series is so far gone and insular by this point, that if you happen to find yourself watching this by accident on late-night TV, chances are that you won't have the faintest idea what is going on.
The film is helped somewhat in this regard by the horcruxes, a plot device which I covered in detail in my previous Harry Potter review. All of my criticisms of this McGuffin aside, the hunt for the horcruxes gives the film structure and a definite end-point towards which we are heading. Like The Two Towers, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 ends before said end-point has been reached, but like Jackson's film there is (to some extent) a feeling of catharsis and expectation of what is to come. That being said, the death of Dobby, like Dumbledore's in the previous film, still feels like an arbitrary event, included purely because it happened in the book. For all his dramatic credentials, David Yates still hasn't grasped how to build up tension so that a death can carry meaning: it's not so much a 'shock death' as a nothing-death.
By focussing on the search for the horcruxes, and taking the action away from Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 moves the series into more candidly existential territory. Our three main characters are at their most isolated and strained since Goblet of Fire, faced with a quest which is seemingly impossible, and having to cope without either the wisdom or protection of their teachers. Kermode's comparisons with Ingmar Bergman may seem far-fetched at first glance, but there is a point behind them: there are fewer creature comforts here than in previous efforts, and like Bergman's films there is little credence given to sentimentality.
The aesthetic of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 reflects this desire for all the stability and comfort in Harry's world to be diminished. Eduardo Serra, who won a BAFTA for his work on Wings of a Dove, shoots the action in a more pathos-ridden manner, emphasising the stillness of the woods, the intimidating dark colours and the increasingly pallid landscapes. Yates employs more hand-held work for the chase sequences through the woods, but is also judicious in his choice of wide shots to reinforce the smallness of the characters. There are times in Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack when the world around the characters seems to creak and wail, akin to Alan Splet's extraordinary work on David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Two sequences in the film reinforce the feeling of gathering gloom and descending darkness better than any other. The first is the animated rendering of the Tale of the Three Brothers, whose stick-like characterisations are somewhere between Classical depictions of soldiers and the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe. The animation on its own is beautifully designed and well-told, but the sequence gives the eponymous hallows more status than they would have had if introduced through just another swathe of exposition. The tale has a Chaucerian quality to it, with Death's characterisation being as subtle and cunning as his namesake in 'The Pardoner's Tale' within The Canterbury Tales.
The second, equally potent sequence is the trio's infiltration of the Ministry of Magic. I mentioned in my review of Order of the Phoenix about the Ministry's design being rooted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What was then a mere inflection is now made flesh, with Yates borrowing heavily yet grippingly from the Michael Radford adaptation, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. The low-angle shots of the banners and wanted posters, not to mention the robotic movements of the Ministry's employees, reinforce the feeling of freedom and justice being crushed in the name of purity and homogeny. Imelda Staunton's return as Dolores Umbridge only hammers this home, taking her inevitable place as the puppet of a state governed by fear, and projecting her own self-loathing onto those she deems inferior.
In the end, however, the centrepiece of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is the relationship between our central trio, something which is anchored us throughout the ups and downs of the entire series. Like Goblet of Fire, seeing the central three at each others' throats is completely believable, but now that the stakes are raised their every tiff or raised voice could spell disaster. Rupert Grint does especially well in conveying the frustration of his character, whether it's listening to the radio to see whether his family has been killed, or his reaction to the nightmarish visions which burst forth from the locket.
The only problem with the approach that Yates adopts is that the character-driven scenes begin to feel repetitive very quickly. It's not quite the case that you could show these sequences in any order you please, but the fact that Ron comes back so relatively quickly negates a lot of the emotional impact of his departure. Equally, there's little to suggest that the order in which the horcruxes are destroyed is the only order in which they could have been tackled; in this film at least, there's no progression from one to the other in terms of their potency or difficulty.
Another big problem with which the film is lumbered is the need to tie up a lot of the supporting storylines, often by simply killing people off. Rowling described the action of the final book as a war, and in war unpredictable deaths are to be expected. But that doesn't mean that characters and creatures to which we have dedicated several years of our lives can just be swept aside as collatoral damage. If you thought that Ginny and Harry's kiss in Half-Blood Prince came out of nowhere, a lot of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 will feel completely jarring and inert. Once again, Yates can't deliver the knock-out blow when it matters most, working so hard on a general tone that the particular moments carry no weight.
It's not just the death of Dobby which falls into this category; the entire Battle of the Seven Potters is a classic example of this approach. The special effects needed to create seven Daniel Radcliffes are all well and good, but the battle's choreography is choppy and disorientating; it doesn't communicate the chaos of the battle, it just leaves you wondering why they bothered in the first place. The deaths of multiple characters are treated in a lackadaisical, matter-of-fact manner, whether we see them on screen (Hedwig) or are simply told about them (Mad-Eye Moody). To top it off, Voldemort's appearance in the scene is a complete waste of time: he doesn't come across as threatening, he does nothing of significance, and he's so easily defeated.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is an intriguing, atmospheric and bleak offering which serves up a lot of good points in amongst its all-too-common drawbacks. It is perhaps the strongest of the Harry Potter films since Goblet of Fire, and unlike many of the films in the series it may well improve with repeat viewings. But while its visuals and main characters are impressive, it's ultimately hobbled or reined in by meaningless deaths and dull repetition. For fans, it's an impressive and ambitious sequel; for cynics, it's a reassurance that, very soon, this will all be over.
When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I described… MoreWhen I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I described the film as "the beginning of... the long, slow consolidation of the franchise." After four films of varying quality under three different directors, the series found a workmanlike happy medium under David Yates, who delivered a film which had promise and interesting ideas but struggled to get through all the plot.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues the transition of the series into a holding pattern which is both problematic and reasonably entertaining. Yates' direction is marginally improved, and the film benefits greatly from the brilliant performance by Jim Broadbent. But many of the issues which plagued its predecessor are still on show, namely the episodic plotting and the feeling of deliberately and needlessly delaying the inevitable.
People have written a lot about the gradual darkening of the Harry Potter series, in both the books and the films. When the sixth book was published, some critics worried that the stories were getting too "grown-up" for people in their early teens who might not have matured with the series. Yates and his collaborators have clearly sought to convey a sense of gathering dread, ramping up the blues and blacks in the colour scheme and with more night scenes than in the previous instalment. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is mainly known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet; having lensed Amelie, at the brighter, more whimsical end of magic, here he broadens his CV to deliver darkness on screen which is at times almost suffocating.
While the darkness may be welcome on a general level, there is a problem with how Half-Blood Prince applies its desire to be dark and bleak. Underneath all the technical jiggery-pokery, there has to be some form of narrative pay-off, a dramatic climax or the stakes being gradually raised which will make the darkness seem palatable. Shooting everyone in shadow or making them wear dark clothes will get you so far, but in order to truly accept that the world is getting darker, there has to be a moment where the evil or obstruction becomes fully realised. In short, we need a strong indication of the storm into which we are heading - or at the very least, confirmation that there is a storm in the first place.
It is entirely possible to make a film which ends on a sense of open-ended dread, in which the manifestation of evil is implied or otherwise takes place off-screen. Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which came out in the same year as this, did a brilliant job of hinting towards the carnage of World War I through unexplained and horrifying events which were difficult to fathom. Half-Blood Prince, on the other hand, feels like a false cliffhanger, in which we are left frustrated that we have to keep waiting for the inevitable showdown between Harry and Voldemort, which could and should have happened long ago.
Much of the fans' disquiet about Half-Blood Prince surrounds the death of Dumbledore - referred to euphemistically as "the unhappy event" by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode during their film reviews on BBC Radio 5Live. In the book, Harry is physically unable to stop Snape from killing Dumbledore; in the film, he simply stands there in shock, waiting under the stairs where Snape told him to remain in silence. Like so many details in the Potter series, this is a moment which should have enormous gravitas, but in Yates' hands it feels more arbitrary even without the changes in Harry's response.
This is extremely surprising given the intensity of Harry's previous scenes with Dumbledore. In an interview with Daniel Radcliffe after the series had ended, J. K. Rowling described Dumbledore's relationship with Harry as "John the Baptist to Harry's Christ"; his great deeds and "voice crying in the wilderness" prepare the way for the greater, deeper work of the one who comes after. Dumbledore is increasingly aware in the later films of his own frailties, shortcomings and mistakes, and the search for the horcruxes epitomises his desire to put things right. For all my criticisms surrounding Dumbledore's predictable role within the plots of the earlier films, his relationship with Harry has become one of the films' most consistently redemptive qualities.
One of the highlights of the film is the scene in the cave, where Dumbledore is forced to drink a painful potion to unveil a locket believed to be a horcrux (more on that concept later). Much of the plaudits have focussed on the technical aspects of the scene, such as the rendering of the zombie-like inferi or Dumbledore's fiery apparition. But what is truly memorable is the anguish on both men's faces as they endure horrific pain to complete the task. The pain of the characters is genuine and gives weight to what otherwise could come across as a meaningless McGuffin to pad out the plot (again, more on that later).
The real emotional heart of the film, however, is Professor Slughorn. Whether through Rowling's characterisation, Steve Kloves' scripting, Yates' direction or a combination of all three, this character manages to be both particularly human and immensely complex in the ideas he represents. Slughorn's reluctance to give up his memory of the young Tom Riddle works so much better than the vague conspiracy of denial dwelt on in Order of the Phoenix. By focussing the dilemma onto one person, it becomes more palatable for an audience and ironically its impact appears greater, at least in relation to a man's conscience.
Slughorn represents all the guilt, shame and regret that surrounds the wizarding profession with respect to Voldemort. He's a well-meaning but not entirely likeable person, whose nervous and eccentric manner belies a tendency to exhibit favouritism to his students and selfishness with regard to his own soul. Broadbent perfectly conveys the idea of a man haunted by knowledge, mindful that what he knows will help but terrified of the contents of said knowledge. If Dumbledore is John the Baptist, then Slughorn combines the misjudged treachery of Judas with the doomed foresight of Cassandra in the Greek Myths.
Broadbent's enigmatic and melancholy performance causes a significant development in Harry's characterisation which would be touched on in the last two films - namely his relationship with power and how he handles temptation. By working from the Half-Blood Prince's book and outdoing his classmates (including Hermione), he feels for the first time like he has the skill and talent to live up to his image as 'the chosen one'. Throughout the film he is torn between his mission for Dumbledore (to recover Slughorn's memory of Riddle) and his growing hubris and curiosity which stem from the new spells he perfects.
As before, then, the saving grace of Half-Blood Prince is its cast, with each of the three principals growing further into their characters and Tom Felton continuing to develop all that is snivelling and repulsive about Draco Malfoy. But the film still has its fair share of structural problems which encumber it, beyond its inability to have a meaningful ending. Not only is Dumbledore's death reduced to a mere incident, but the film never explains its title. As a result Snape's final words to Harry feel like they were crowbarred in to justify calling the film by such a name; for all the peeks into Snape's history that we've enjoyed, we've no idea why he should be called that or what it means in the wider context of the plot.
The film also has issues with accommodating some of the magical concepts. The atmosphere Yates creates on screen is definitely more magical and mysterious than Chris Columbus managed in the first two films. But mood alone cannot be used to justify concepts like the Room of Requirement and the Vanishing Cabinet. Like the previous film, the idea is badly derivative and jars with the general attempt within Rowling's world for everything to have a logical basis; you cannot create dramatic tension if you can just magic something out of thin air when you need it.
Then we come to the horcruxes, which serve as the driving McGuffin for The Deathly Hallows. Even taking on board everything I have said about Dumbledore and Harry's relationship, there are two big problems with this concept. Firstly, the idea is not particularly original, with both Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings and the puzzle box from Hellraiser being prior examples. And secondly, there is a simple plot hole to consider; if Dumbledore knew that Riddle's diary was a horcrux, why has he waited so long to search for the others? By introducing the concept so late, rather than, for instance, hunting one horcrux per film, it feels like a last-minute, back-of-a-beer-mat resolution to the story, with everything that has gone before serving to buy Rowling some time.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is an enjoyable and atmospheric offering whose performances cover up its narrative and structural shortcomings. While the cast are largely excellent and the dark tone is welcome compared to the earlier offerings, it isn't put together with sufficient skill or ingenuity to deliver enough of a knock-out punch. At the three-quarter mark in this franchise, it's a middling but entertaining effort, and certainly enough to whet our appetites for both parts of The Deathly Hallows.
Seth Macfarlane has rapidly become of the most divisive comedians of… MoreSeth Macfarlane has rapidly become of the most divisive comedians of the modern era. The continuing, often baffling success of Family Guy and American Dad! have made him as successful as the creators of The Simpsons, earning him millions of fans and an equal number of critics, both professional and public. For some, he is a witty, ingenious writer and performer with a gift for puncturing egos; for others, he is nasty, derivative, mean-spirited and crass, whose work lacks the narrative coherency of his betters.
Wherever you stand on Macfarlane's televisual endeavours, translating from one medium to another is notoriously difficult. It's very tempting to treat any film project as merely an excuse to get in more of the same material, or to allow the jokes to run on for longer than a 20-minute episode would usually permit. Just as was with Ted, so it is with Macfarlane's second film, A Million Ways to Die in the West (hereafter A Million Ways). While not without brief moments of coherence or spark, the film is largely unfunny, unfocussed, and squanders all the best ideas for the cheapest gag on which it can lay its hands.
A good way of illustrating the central problem with this film is to be found in Dwarfing USA, a DVD documentary about the ill-fated American version of Red Dwarf. Doug Naylor, who co-created the original series, recalled being in a room of writers from The Simpsons and Cheers, and being berated for wanting to work on character construction rather than coming up with gags. Naylor said to the writers present: "It doesn't matter how many one-liners you think of, it's not going to solve the problem. It's just Bandaid over the cancer."
The point of this comparison is that Macfarlane has clearly gone to town thinking of as many throwaway gags with a Western aspect as he can. You can imagine him sitting in a writers' meeting for hours, writing down every funny thing that occurred to him and ticking them off a huge list as he tried to fit them all in. But no matter how many jokes he can produce, or how long he chooses to play these jokes out for, they cannot solve the underlying problems: the story and the characters.
The great comedy westerns of old, like Blazing Saddles, soared because their stories and characters worked on their own merits without them having to constantly try and be funny. Underneath all the buffoonery and fart jokes, there was a believable relationship between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, who were part of a story with genuine tension, stakes and even pathos. Mel Brooks understood that comedy is often borne out of human misery, and used even its silliest moments to poke fun at Western stereotypes.
In A Million Ways, Macfarlane has set his sights far lower than Brooks did even at his low point in the 1990s. While both filmmakers brought modern dialogue to an historic setting, Macfarlane doesn't do anything constructive with this conceit. Like a lot of American comedians, Macfarlane treats the film as an excuse to play a version of himself in which his ability to wisecrack trumps all other ideas or plot considerations. He's playing at being a cowboy, making up the plot as he sees fit, rather than creating believable cowboy characters who just happen to talk like 1970s Jewish comedians.
The central idea of A Million Ways isn't exactly a bad one. Many modern westerns go for a gritty and earthy approach, eschewing the nostalgia of John Ford and John Wayne, but very few dramatic westerns dwell on the fine points of sudden, horrible death by anything other than a gun. There is definitely potential in making a film about the Wild West as a place where people can die suddenly without good reason or means of moral justification - a sort of 19th-century Leviathan, but with jokes.
Even if Macfarlane's ambitions didn't extend to a full-on reworking of Thomas Hobbes, he could have taken this central idea further. He could have used Charlize Theron's character to directly challenge the gender stereotypying of westerns; there hasn't been a cowboy film with a viable female lead for many years. Equally, he could have taken Liam Neeson's ruthless, lugubrious villain and subverted the concept, making him a complete coward or someone who is misunderstood. He could have done any number of things - but as usual he settles for the cheap gag and the fast buck over anything involving either thought or genuine creativity.
Most of the biggest gags in A Million Ways - in other words, the ones that made the trailer - are lowest common denominator fare designed to get a quick shock and a shameful laugh. There's nothing inherently wrong with jokes about poo, vomiting, farting or sexual intercourse, but you have to package them in a certain way to stop the comedy becoming about shock value for shock value's sake. John Waters knew this, Mel Brooks knew this, even the Farrelly Brothers knew this - but clearly it's something that Macfarlane still has to learn.
There is no better example of this than the all-too lengthy scene involving Neil Patrick Harris getting the runs during the gunfight. The initial idea has some comedic promise - someone can't attend a gunfight because he can't stop going to the toilet. In the hands of a director who understood that suggestion is often more effective than being explicit, the joke could have worked reasonably well. But Macfarlane shows us far too much, repeating the same joke over and over without progressing the scene, and then giving us the totally unnecessarily close-up of the hat full of faeces. He deconstructs his own joke while he's telling it, insulting our intelligence and bringing the pace of the scene to a grinding halt.
The same goes for the so-called climax, where Albert outwits Clinch in the final duel. Had Macfarlane put in the hard yards, showing the growing ingenuity and self-respect of Albert, this development would have made much more sense and felt cathartic. As it is, it looks and feels for all the world like the writer plucked the resolution out of his arsw, shoehorned the plot around it and then explained it to death, killing the joke in the process. Tom Baker got away with this in some of the weaker episodes of Doctor Who because he was charismatic and appealing enough to make us believe that the Doctor was really that clever. But Albert isn't clever: he's as stupid as his creator believes his audience to be.
In hindsight, it was a very bad idea to allow Macfarlane to direct, produce, write and star in this film. Whether because his energies are too thinly spread or because he has no real talent at all, he comes up short in every aspect. His central performance is flat and weak, with no real character development and a cocky, chauvinistic quality which makes him unappealing. His writing is mediocre, always low-balling it when a person in his position should be taking risks. His direction is to westerns what Chris Columbus was to Harry Potter, with the camera remaining so static that we can tell when a joke is being set up just by looking at a given shot for more than a second. And by producing it, alongside good friends Scott Stuber and Jason Clark, there is no-one to rein him in when he starts being narratively flatulent as well as comedically so.
If we disregard the jokes for the moment - difficult as that may be - we find ourselves coming back to the issue with the characters. The central dynamic is simply a lazy and boring regurgitation of the Judd Apatow formula - namely a romance in which a schlubby, incompetent, shallow and cretinous guy ends up with the beautiful, smart, resourceful woman for no good reason. Taken abstractly, there is no way in hell that Anna would end up with Albert, and shaping him as the lesser of two evils over Clinch is not only stupid, it's downright misogynistic.
In spite of all this, it would be wrong to describe A Million Ways as an abject failure. There are so many gags being thrown at you that some are bound to stick in a disposable way, and for newcomers to the comedy western sub-genre, there are worse places in which one could start (Wagons East, for example). It is equally possible to enjoy it for the supporting cast, who work overtime to do their best in spite of the material. While Neeson is largely boring, pitching it somewhere between Taken and Seraphim Falls, Theron is a lot more appealing and almost manages to make her role convincing in its own right.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointingly scattershot affair which will entertain Macfarlane fans but leave the rest of us with half-remembered frustration. Its central premise and its cast both have undoubted potential, but every good idea it has is quickly ground down into third-rate physical or scatalogical jokes which are poorly directed, have no staying power, and are offensive for all the wrong reasons. Macfarlane can do so much better as both an actor and a writer, but the biggest compliment you can pay this film is that it makes you want to rewatch Blazing Saddles, to see how it really should be done.
In my previous Harry Potter review, I talked about the challenges the… MoreIn my previous Harry Potter review, I talked about the challenges the film franchise faced when the books began to grow in size. The continuing success of the series, both on the page and on the screen, put pressure on the directors, producers and writers to include as much of the source material as possible to keep the fans happy. While none of the directors after Chris Columbus have been quite so literal-minded in this regard as he was, the desire for fidelity is still present in different ways.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the beginning of what could be called the long, slow consolidation of the franchise. The first of ultimately four efforts to be helmed by David Yates, it approaches the material with neither the need nor the willingness to prove itself, seemingly confident that fans will know enough about the basics at this point that more new stuff can be crammed in. But while the film has a lot of promising or interesting aspects, it is in the final analysis more episodic and less satisfying than its two predecessors, and may be the weakest film in the series since Chamber of Secrets.
It's very easy to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the director. Yates was and is primarily a TV director, having made his name on acclaimed series like State of Play and TV films like The Girl in the Cafe. His only previous theatrical offering, The Tichborne Claimant, was notable for its cast but not for its plot or execution. It would be very simple to assume that Yates simply has an episodic mindset, and is, through his training and sensibility, less capable of long-form, cinematic storytelling than Mike Newell or Alfonso Cuarón.
Whatever truth may be in these statements, however, they are not by any means the whole truth. An equally bigger problem lies in the fact that the series doesn't feel the need to justify each instalment on its own terms anymore. Up until Goblet of Fire, the future of the series felt up in the air just enough to keep everyone on their toes: Newell's film and Prisoner of Azkaban went the extra mile to prove that they were necessary additions to the canos. By the time Order of the Phoenix came to be made, the Harry Potter fandom had developed to such an extent that there was no longer any need for such healthy self-doubt. While the films don't treat the viewers' intelligence with outright contempt, there is still an underlying unwillingness to bring new people on board, even at such a late stage.
There are a lot of things about Order of the Phoenix which are appealing, and any one of them could have the capstone for a film in its own right. There is the tyrannical rule of Delores Umbridge, who descends onto Hogwarts like a terrifying cross between Margaret Thatcher, Mary Whitehouse and Michael Gove. There is the Order of the title, with more details coming forward about Sirius Black and the Malfoys. And there is the overriding conspiracy of denial surrounding Voldemort's return, following the events of the last film.
Order of the Phoenix is significant within the series for being the only film not to be scripted by Steve Kloves. Michael Goldenberg, who wrote Contact and the live-action version of Peter Pan, was brought in to replace Kloves after the latter claimed to be physically and mentally exhausted. Kloves' scripts may never have been perfect, falling into several predictable rhythms, but it's probable that he could have marshalled these different and divergent threads into something more coherently satisfying.
For most of its running time, Order of the Phoenix concerns itself with the first plotline, focussing on Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and inflicting her pink plague upon the students. Imelda Staunton does a really great job getting across all Umbridge's quirks, showing all that latent rage and frustration burning away under the forced smile of quiet, English passive aggression. Her characterisation of Umbridge as a spineless, narrow-minded, pencil-pushing moral crusader is a breath of fresh air compared to the other teachers of Defence Against the Dark Arts, who have by and large been pale, skulking and slippery types, whose physicalisation so often shows their hand too early.
Just as Goblet of Fire did a good job of creating tension through infighting between Harry and his friends, so this film manages to unsettle our feelings of safety by removing all aspects of Hogwarts we have learnt to take for granted. In the previous films, there was always a sense that no matter how bad things got, two things were certain: Dumbledore would be around to help, and Harry wouldsave the day. In Order of the Phoenix both are called into question early on, leaving us uncertain and ever mindful of the gathering evil of Voldemort.
By referring back to the denial of Voldemort by those in authority, Yates introduces a theme of the corruption of the wizarding authority, upon which he expands in the later films. Much like the Time Lords in classic Doctor Who, the Ministry of Magic started out as a seemingly benign and benevolent organisation, but is increasingly portrayed as hubristic, all-controlling and, in the Ministry's case, driven as much by fear as Voldemort ultimately is. Umbridge's reign is the first hint we get of the Nineteen Eighty-Four-inflected view of the wizarding world, removing another crumb of comfort from the audience for our own good.
Further effort is also made to weaken Harry as a reliable protagonist, in this case by his battles with Snape as the latter tries to train his mind against the Dark Lord's influence. Daniel Radcliffe's performance in these scenes demonstrates how far he has matured over the course of the series: he may be playing an easily-angered adolescent, but it's a controlled performance and he responds to Alan Rickman quite superbly. Rickman, naturally, gives as good as he gets, but his best is reserved for his brief, taciturn exchanges with Umbridge.
All of this sounds promising - but there's a problem. Because the book is so big, Yates is never able to develop any of these strands to an entirely satisfying degree, and as a result the whole thing begins to feel inconsequential. Even with all the cuts that he and Goldenberg made before filming had even started, the film still feels like a half-told collection of bits which can't entirely stand on their own. Supporting characters feel increasingly like stations we pass through on a long train journey, and by this point the feeling is not one of intrigue at where we are, but growing frustration at how long it is taking us to get us to our destination.
It may seem churlish to keep comparing Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, but here as elsewhere it is a meaningful comparison. Much of the (unwarranted) criticism of The Two Towers focussed on the idea that the film couldn't be taken on its own, with critics (wrongly) claiming that it didn't have a meaningful beginning and end. Order of the Phoenix suffers from the same problem; if you had never seen the first four films, too little of it would make sense for you to enjoy it as a stand-alone. And because so little effort is made to let the casual viewer in, the majority of what happens just washes over you in an unmemorable way.
There are other big problems with Order of the Phoenix outside of its structural integrity. There are internal issues too, relating to the storytelling, the pacing and the integration of the action. Despite being the shortest film in the series, at 138 minutes, the film still feels drawn out in places, with Yates taking a long time to cover aspects which could just as adequately be explained in half the time. The Order itself feels underdeveloped as a concept, with Yates giving more time to more visually memorable but relatively frivolous concepts, such as the Room of Requirement - which is, for the record, both unoriginal (the TARDIS) and lazy to the point of utter desperation.
The big issue with both the drama and the set-pieces is one of emphasis. While he has some credentials in drama, Yates does not do set-pieces very well, the result being that all the fights which should feel weighty instead feel distracted and unfocussed. The final battle between the Order and the Death-Eaters feels empty and perfunctory, with Yates' camera chasing after the action rather than shaping it. The result is that Sirius Black's death carries no meaning at all, which is a huge shame given Gary Oldman's hard work to make him compelling in Prisoner of Azkaban. The same goes for Voldemort's duel with Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic: we get a three-minute parade of unremarkable special effects, and then it's back to normal as if nothing ever happened.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a middling instalment in the franchise which contains potential but lacks focus in its execution. Its interesting ideas and the moments in which it does come together ultimately redeem it, as least as a passing diversion, but it is the least essential Harry Potter film since Chamber of Secrets. In the end, it's a mild disappointment, being not being bad enough to put you off, but leaving you with some serious concerns going forward.
It has become increasingly common for different instalments of a film… MoreIt has become increasingly common for different instalments of a film franchise to be helmed by different directors. Even in a series as long-running as James Bond, it was quite common for directors like Guy Hamilton and John Glen to helm several consecutive stories. With the brand now seemingly more important than any form of directorial stamp, it is more usual for different hands to come in and do things their way, albeit within clearly set parameters.
All of which brings us to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the halfway point of the Harry Potter series. With Alfonso Cuarón electing not to direct a second film, and moving on to Children of Men, the job was given to Mike Newell, best known for the Oscar-nominated comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. But whatever misgivings one may have about his back catalogue, the appointment paid off, with Goblet of Fire matching its predecessor in many respects and possibly even improving in others.
Newell's versatility as a director is evident throughout Goblet of Fire, in that he is required to pull off many different kinds of scenes and handle several key emotional developments in the characters. Goblet of Fire was the point at which the Harry Potter books began to grow in size, which in turn meant that the filmmakers had to cram a lot more into the adaptations. Newell deliberately chose to "put aside" all elements of the novel which were not directly linked to Harry's journey, and the result is that the film remains a generally focussed effort, despite being the second-longest at 157 minutes.
In my review of the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I commented that the film did a good job of setting up conflict between the three main characters, challenging Harry's image of a "goody two-shoes" and deepening the characters as a result. Newell's effort builds on this in spades, with all three characters now firmly in the throes of adolescence and Harry struggling with his reputation as his visions grow stronger and more terrifying.
One of the most refreshing and entertaining aspects of Goblet of Fire is seeing our three main characters go through periods of intensely hating each other. This may sound like schadenfreude, coming from a man who's always preferred Tolkien to Rowling, but conflict is essential to good drama, and the series was still playing catch-up after the emotional stodge of the first two films. Our three heroes are at a point where their identities are being called in question by forces beyond their control, whether their own hormones or the Dark Lord. Under such circumstances, in-fighting is not only expected, it should be welcomed.
It's for this reason that the ball scene is one of the best in the entire film. For all the thrilling spectacle of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, scenes like this are the emotional heart of the film. There is a degree of empathy that we share with the characters before any of the arguments occur: we remember how dorky and nervous we seemed at our high school dances. But once we see Hermione erupt at her embarassment, or Ron scowl at her in resentment, it all comes alive. By making us question these friendships so comprehensively, it makes the more malevolent moments more weighty, giving us more to fear and less on which to depend.
Much of Goblet of Fire is concerned with identity and about characters having to pretend to be something they're not. Harry spends the entire film in a state of reluctance: while he doesn't go all mopey about it, he clearly doesn't want to be involved in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. On the other side, we have Barty Crouch Jr. (played well by David Tennant), who uses polyjuice potion to impersonate a teacher and gain Harry's confidence. Both characters are under pressure to live up to their identities, with Harry even struggling to fight Voldemort in their climactic battle in the graveyard. The only real distinction between them is choice: Crouch chooses to be driven by malice, while Harry's destiny is already sealed.
When the book was released, Rowling gave many interviews in which she cited the story's main theme as one of bigotry. She said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that it was "probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of 'that which is different from me is necessary evil'." It would be fair to assume that the main vehicle for this theme would be Voldemort, whose contempt for muggles is conveyed in the graveyard. But the film also focusses on bigotry as an advanced form of favouritism, something evident in Draco Malfoy's behaviour and to a certain extent in the tournament.
This brings us on fittingly to the return of Voldemort, specifically his return to a physical body and the performance of Ralph Fiennes. Bringing Voldemort back was bound to happen sooner or later, and Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves work hard to justify this, gradually building up the darker aspects of the plot until it becomes tragically inevitable. After this instalment the series struggled to keep Voldemort interesting, with the final conflict between him and Harry being steadily delayed for increasingly contrived reasons. But within the confines of this film, it works - at least up to a point.
Fiennes' performance has often been a sticking point with fans, with people being split over whether he was truly intimidating or unintentionally hilarious. It's certainly true that Fiennes walks the line between horror and comedy, and not always with confidence: while it's not exactly Victor Quartermaine from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it's a much more larger-than-life villain than Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Ultimately Fiennes does what the film needs to do, giving Voldemort a believable presence and showing the threat he poses to Harry. It's not a complete success, but it fulfils the requirements of the role.
Others within the adult cast fare far better in delivering convicing portrayals. David Tennant may be associated with heroic roles after his tenure on Doctor Who, but his performance as Barty Crouch, Jr. has an appealingly skin-crawling quality. He manages to maintain an almost manic state without ever coming across as a ham, allowing his outbursts to become properly threatening. The late Roger Lloyd Pack is also good as his father, a bureaucrat who seems wracked with guilt and nerves for what he did to his son and the peril which Harry is in. And Brendon Gleeson is perfectly cast as Mad Eye Moody, bringing his unusual physicality to the fore in the classroom scenes and giving us a lot to laugh at when he's angry.
The other big asset of Goblet of Fire is its visuals. Roger Pratt returns as cinematographer, having previously lent his talents to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No longer shackled by Chris Columbus, he does a much better job here, continuing the work of Cuarón and Michael Seresin of bringing out the dark blues and blacks for an intimidating atmosphere. Pratt is a fantasy veteran, having worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys; he knows a thing or two about creating a sense of magic or horror, making the maze scenes feel like they've escaped from The Shining.
There are a couple of faults with Goblet of Fire which prevent it from completely surpassing its predecessor. Despite Newell's best efforts and intentions to keep the action focussed on Harry, the plot still feels occassionally meandering, as if more effort were being expended on something than was necessary. Whole sections of the book have been left out, and others changed so that different characters could get screen time, and it may be that elements of the books simply don't work on film. But it's still a baggy offering, even if it's an enjoyable one.
The other flaw, as with many of the Potter films, is predictability. I complained in my Prisoner of Azkaban review about the Defence Against the Dark Arts convention, which has gone from being a mild irritation to an example of lazy writing. Equally Harry's inclusion in the wizard tournament may turn out to be narratively integral, but the circumstances in which he becomes involved are an enormous contrivance. It feels like the plot is making every effort to keep Harry at the centre of the action even when it doesn't make sense, to the point of setting up rules only to break them. The smart, or at least different thing to do, would be to have him completely marginalised, letting Voldemort approach him more directly rather than luring him in through coincidences.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a confident addition to the franchise which builds on the successes of its predecessor to create an emotionally satisfying experience. It still suffers from the ongoing flaws of bagginess and predictability, facets which would become more problematic during David Yates' tenure. But if you can look beyond that, you are looking at a film which rivals Prisoner of Azkaban as the high point to which the other films aspire.