Friday, November 19, 2010

Neal's Epic-ly Spoilerific and Spoilerific-ly Epic Deathly Hallows Review

Grade: B (I think Rachel would rate it higher, but I'll let her explain that later)
So, this afternoon, Rachel and I got to take in the latest installment of the Harry Potter film franchise. I went in concerned, with my expectations fairly low. I had read some decidedly mixed reviews.

(Click above on the title of this post to continue my spoiler-filled review.)

The reviews I saw tended to offer the following criticisms:

-Holy crap, that was a lot of camping

-Kind of boring, also, did anyone notice all the camping?!

-The young actors couldn't hold their own. Also, you know, the camping thing.

Having now seen the film, I don't think any of these criticisms are particularly fair. For one, there is a lot of camping in the first 2/3 of Deathly Hallows, completely unavoidable for the filmmakers, at least to a certain degree. Secondly, I think all the young actors did fairly well, but more on that below.

As for the plot, anyone geeky enough to start reading a Harry Potter film review on their friend's blog has probably read the book. The film is actually very faithful to the book.

After quick establishing shots of the Trio at their respective homes (including Hermione's), we get Voldemort's meeting with his Death Eaters, escape to the Burrow, wedding, escape from the wedding, Grimmauld Place, break-in to the Ministry, camping, camping, camping, fight, Ron leaves, sad camping, sad camping, sad camping, Godric's Hollow, snake attack, sad camping, Ron returns, Horcrux destruction, slightly-happier camping, Lovegoods', Deathly Hallows explanation, chase, capture, torture, escape, death . . .

As you can see from my overall grade, the film pulls most of this off quite well. Yes, even the camping. Here's my breakdown of what I liked, didn't like, and thought was just OK:

The Good:

Daniel Radcliffe: This isn't too surprising. I think Radcliffe is an all-around solid actor who has generally done a good job playing Harry. Here, he hits all the necessary emotional beats, without overplaying them. Seeing his parents' graves for the first time, Harry tears up and is clearly moved, choking out a glum "Merry Christmas, Hermione" while Hermione puts her arm around him. Radcliffe avoids the chance to create an Oscar clip by weeping and yelling "Noooooooo!!!" while falling to his knees. Well played, Radcliffe.

He's funny too. The scene where Radcliffe has to play six of Harry's own doppelgangers is very, very funny, and well-acted. You can actually tell who's who just based on Radcliffe's posture and facial expression.

Finally, it must be said that he has excellent on-screen chemistry with Emma Watson (more on that below), which works to the film's advantage during the admittedly long 'sad camping' phase after Ron's departure.

Emma Watson: OK, this is a surprise. For most of the previous six films, Emma Watson has gotten by on an often-terrible combination of one 'concerned' face, one 'scared' face, a 'sad face,' disconcertingly-rapid eyebrow movements, and more recently the fact that she's (at the age of 20) very, very pretty. Please understand that I mean this in the least-pervy way possible. Rachel and I had a whole conversation about this on the way home. In this film, the filmmakers really go out of their way to try to make the Trio look scruffy, tired, and worn out. The boys are both dirty and bestubbled for most of the proceedings. Hermione, on the other hand, looks all freckly and adorable no matter what. Don't underestimate the importance of this for her future career as an actress. Other pretty actresses have gotten by on less talent.

Here, though, Rachel and I both thought she did a good job. Like Radcliffe, she hits all the necessary emotional beats, from sobbing over a bleeding and unconscious Ron to screaming and writhing in agony as Bellatrix carves the word 'mudblood' into her arm (yes, this actually happens). Life Radcliffe, she has some nice, quietly-played moments where she avoids the temptation to overact. Well played, Watson.

Ministry Break-In: This is one of most compelling, and often funny, segments of the film. As I'm sure you know, the Trio have to disguise themselves as Ministry employees in order to break in and steal the the Slytherin locket Horcrux from Dolores Umbridge. The reason this series of scenes works so well is that the adult actors who play the disguised Trio all do a great job. Especially David O'Hara, who plays Harry and is without question the secret MVP of the movie. It's hard to explain unless you see it, but he's hilariously convincing as Harry/Radcliffe in disguise.

Harry-Hermione Slow Dance: When I first read in an early review of the movie that Harry cheers up a depressed Hermione (post-Ron departure) by slow dancing with her to a Nick Cave song, I assumed this was going to be Harry Potter's biggest "Hey! Is that the Fonz on water skis?!" moment since Grawp snatched up Hermione in Order of the Phoenix (Man, was that a stupid scene). And yet, it works. It really works. Radcliffe and Watson deserve all the credit in the world. They clearly have a very real, lived-in friendship that comes across nicely on screen. A surprisingly-touching little moment that could have easily seemed awkward and forced. Well-played, Radcliffe and Watson.

Destroying the Slytherin Locket Horcrux: I'm a little torn here, because this scene ultimately falls a little flat once the Horcrux is destroyed. It makes the 'good list' all the same because it's the source of one of the most incredibly-palpable moments of "is this actually happening!!!?? IS THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING!!!????" tension I've ever experienced in a packed movie theater.

After Ron rescues Harry and retrieves the sword of Gryffindor from the frozen pond, Harry opens the locket using Parseltongue. At this point, an evil, scarier version of the smoke monster from Lost explodes out of the locket, sending Ron and Harry flying backwards in opposite directions. Horcrux-Voldemort's taunting of Ron culminates in the appearance of shiny, evil versions of Harry and Hermione who tell Ron that he's worthless, and then proceed to full-on make out . . . in the nude. How nude? This is a conversation from the car ride home:

Me: Am I taking crazy pills, or was there actually some side boob there?
Rachel: Oh, there was totally side boob!! IT WAS BANANAS!!

Again, I can't stress enough how fun it was to be in a packed theater of Harry Potter fans who were collectively losing their crap. Also, kudos to Radcliffe and Watson for really, really not holding back. Even if we all realize later that this scene was way overwrought (very possible), it was still an incredibly-enjoyable theater moment.

Deathly Hallows Animation: This was completely unexpected and very cool. When the Trio visit a clearly-depressed and distracted Xenophilius Lovegood for info on the strange symbol Hermione keeps coming across, he has Hermione read 'The Tale of the Three Brothers' from the book Dumbledore left her. Hermione's narration is accompanied by some really cool animation that explains the origins of the three Deathly Hallows. One of the nicest surprises of the film. Of course, everything goes downhill for the film after this scene (a full rant on that below).

Little Moments: The filmmakers do a great job of building in little moments to reward fans of the books. Harry does wake up in Grimmauld Place to find that Ron and Hermione fell asleep holding hands (and yes, Ron is on the floor). Ron and Harry speak appreciatively about the little portable fires Hermione is so good at making (a nice call back to the first book). We also get some great Fred and George stuff early in the film ("I'm holey, Fred"). The list could go on. Good job, filmmakers.

Honorable Mentions: Godric's Hollow snake fight, Hermione erasing her parents' memories of her.

The Just OK:

Rupert Grint: Yeah, I know, he's an easy target. The fact that he's a slightly odd-looking guy is not aided by the fact that he continues to sport one of the worst haircuts any actor has ever had. Grint has been blamed by many fans for the often extreme wimpification of Ron that occurred in many of the earlier films. While much of that comes down to the screenwriters and directors, it's still easy to dislike Grint for his love of goofy facial expressions and high-pitched whining.

And yet, by the halfway point of this film, my opinion of him had completely turned around. He's very good in the early stages of the film, especially in a scene where he confronts Harry in one of his inevitable "No one else is going to die for me!" moods. He's equally good at playing Ron's descent into paranoia and resentment under the influence of the Slytherin locket Horcrux. He, Radcliffe, and Watson are all great in the big argument scene.

Then, he returns, and while he does a passable job in the Horcrux destruction scene, things quickly go downhill from there (More on that below).

Ron-Hermione Reunion: So, once Ron and Harry have vanquished the smoke monster, they head back to camp to meet up with Hermione, but not before Ron quips, "just think, only three more to go!" Parenthetically, I was a little disappointed they cut the whole "Dude, seriously, she's like my sister, bro" conversation Harry and Ron have at that point in the book.

Meanwhile, back at the tent, Hermione awakes to find that Ron has returned to the Scooby Gang. After the requisite slapping and hitting of Ron, Hermione looks on coldly as Ron explains how he found his way back to Harry and Hermione.

*incredibly cheesy music begins to swell in the background*

Now, keep in mind, the movie had actually been pretty stellar up to this point (at least in my opinion), but now for the first time I thought "uh oh . . . "

Ron, accompanied by a painfully overwrought score, explains how he heard Hermione's voice on the radio, opened the Deluminator, a ball of light touched his heart, bla, bla, bla. None of this is really Grint's fault. He does a decent job with the speech, and it's straight out of the book, but the music kind of makes it all fall flat. Meh.

Dobby: Dobby of course makes his triumphant return in this film, and the filmmakers do a good job of working him into the story before the whole "And now, for some reason, Dobby is here!" rescue at Malfoy Manor. The CG animation looks good, and the voice actor does a fine job, but the film often deflates essential tension so that Dobby can have all his big moments. In the film, it's kind of Dobby's own fault he takes a knife to the chest. At the climax of the fight in Malfoy Manor, with Ron, Harry, a rescued Hermione, and the goblin all gathered together and ready to disapparate, Dobby inexplicably pauses to give his cheesy "Dobby is a free elf!!" speech. Many of the people in the theater loved this, meanwhile all I could think was: DISAPPARATE! YOU IDIOT!!!!

Dobby's death is handled well, with Radcliffe convincingly crying over what was (I assume) a rubber doll with golf balls for eyes. I don't know. I can only get so worked up over a CG muppet. Meh.

The Villains: I'm lumping all of these characters together, because the problems are more with the writing and directing than with the actors. Ralph Fiennes is terrific as Voldemort (and I actually didn't really like him that much in Goblet of Fire), but we don't get to see much of him after the big Death Eater sit-down that starts the film. Helena Bonham Carter does a good job as Bellatrix, especially during her creepy confrontation with Hermione, but she is horribly undermined by her wardrobe. I'm sorry, but a woman wearing a set of fake teeth and Elvira hair can only be so scary.

The main villains for much of the film are actually the 'Snatchers,' bandits who maraud the countryside looking for fugitives. Ultimately, they're kind of a dud as a group of villains. The main Snatcher is basically presented as a Hermione-sniffing pervert. Weird? Yes. Slightly unsettling? Maybe. Scary? Not really.

This is why The Lord of the Rings had Orcs.

Slightly Weird/Unintentionally Funny: Neither Ron nor Harry gives two farts about Hermione's parents. Despite frequent melancholy statements like, "I used to come here with Mum and Dad, of course, they wouldn't remember that now, or me . . . " Ron and Harry never inquire further or show the slightest interest in why she's so upset.

The Bad:

Chase and Capture: After their meeting with Xenophilius Lovegood goes south, the Trio have to quickly disapparate to avoid getting caught by Death Eaters. They reappear in some woods where they run right into a set of Snatchers, led by the Hermione-Sniffing Pervert.

"Snatch them!" he says. (audible groan)

And so, they run. But why though? Couldn't they grab hands and just disapparate again? Apparition might secretly be one of the biggest logic/continuity errors in the books. When I think about it, I'm not sure I really know all the rules. Anyway, maybe the Trio are just low on MP (appreciative chuckle from those of us who played video games in the early '90's), but they decide to run. There is some cool camera work here, but they of course are captured fairly easily, with Hermione disfiguring Harry so he won't be recognized.

It's not how easily they're captured that deflates all tension from this set of scenes, it's how easily they're held captive. Like Superman, it turns out that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have but one weakness as wizards who have undergone six years of magical training. So, what is Harry Potter's kryptonite?

Having his arms or shirt held lightly from behind . . . yeah, real heroic. After some Hermione sniffing, the Hermione-Sniffing Pervert recognizes Harry and decides that he's taking these fugitives straight to the Big Boss.

When next we see our indomitable heroes, they are being led glumly towards the front gates of Malfoy Manor (Voldemort HQ). Knowing that torture and death surely await them inside, what do our heroes do to attempt escape? Nothing. Are they tied up? No. Magically restrained or incapacitated in any way? No. You see, the Snatchers are lightly pushing them from behind. It would be impossible for them to turn around and try to punch out one of their captors, grab a wand, or disapparate. Wait, why can't they disapparate again? This rant's just getting started . . .

Malfoy Manor: The Trio are led (rather easily) into Malfoy Manor and presented to a gleeful Bellatrix and Lucius Malfoy (played brilliantly as a drunken has-been by Jason Isaacs). Once they dispense with the "Is it really him, Draco?" business, Bellatrix recognizes the sword of Gryffindor in the hands of one of the Snatchers, and flips out. She instructs one of her goons (maybe it's Wormtail, I'd have to see it again) to take Harry and Ron down to the cellar, announcing her intentions to question Hermione about the sword.

Now, in the book, aware that their friend is about to be brutally tortured, Ron and Harry have to be dragged kicking and screaming into to the cellar. In the movie, nope, their arms are being held from behind, so they're totally helpless. They allow themselves to be led rather meekly into their prison cell.

This is where the scene falls tragically flat. Give credit to Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Watson, who both at least realized this was the climax of the movie. Emma Watson very convincingly howls in agony as Bellatrix questions her about the sword.

In the book, Ron starts hysterically sobbing at the sound of Hermione's pain and physically hurls himself at the cellar door in a desperate attempt to escape. In the movie, Rupert Grint plays Ron as mildly concerned, at best. Movie Ron tugs lightly on the bars of the door and quickly concludes that they're locked in, so . . .

All the tension created by Hermione's torment is completely deflated by Harry and Ron's weirdly calm and frankly, kind of lame reaction in the cellar. Then of course Dobby shows up to save the day and lets them out.

We're then treated to a very short and perfunctory wand fight as Harry and Ron try to rescue Hermione. Once Dobby drops the chandelier on Bellatrix, Harry very easily takes the wands away from Draco (Seriously! It's the climactic fight of the movie, have the guys throw a few punches!), and they all disapparate.

Just a disappointing conclusion to a good film. In the book, even with Dobby's help, Ron and Harry have to scrape and claw their way out of the cellar (including a deadly confrontation with Wormtail, who is easily dispatched by Dobby here). In the movie, it all goes kind of easy once Dobby shows up. Meh.

Final Thoughts: Despite my epic rant about how disappointing and lame I found parts of the final twenty or so minutes, I overall really enjoyed the movie. David Yates is really good at directing quieter, character-driven moments, but he is not always as good at building and sustaining tension in action scenes. That makes me a little nervous about the finale, but we'll see.

If any of you was brave or crazy enough to read the whole thing, let me know what you thought about the movie or my review in the comments.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harry Potter Thoughts

I decided that, in preparation for watching the new Harry Potter movie this Friday (we've got our tickets!), I should re-read all seven in order. (I meant to re-read the first six before the seventh one came out, but that didn't happen, so this will be the first time I've done the seven in a row.) I didn't budget quite enough time, so I won't be able to finish before the movie, but oh well. What I can do is share some observations I've been making about the beginning of the story now that I know how it all ends.

Here are some notions I've entertained, just having finished #3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

1) J. K. didn't hide a ton of clues about the future in Book 1, but I enjoy the ones that are there. My favorite is Harry's creeping sensation that Snape can read minds.

2) Draco Malfoy may be the worst-written character in the series. (At least through the first three books.) He is unrelentingly horrible--just no redeeming characteristics at all--yet in no way a threat. He never bests Harry at anything, and besides being a little dumb, is a huge coward. It bothers me that Harry and his pals hardly ever have good comebacks for him, when he is nothing but comic relief. Example: Malfoy goes on and on and on and on about Harry fainting because of the dementors. But then he pulls a total drama queen when Buckbeak scratches him. How do Harry and Ron not kill him for that? He gave them so much material!

Let's contrast this with Snape: Snape is a mean, petty little man, but not only is he the secret hero in Book 1, he's also right a lot of the time. Yes, it's always wrong how he treats children (a grown man has no excuse to be that much of a bully to 11- and 12-year-olds), but he has a point when he talks about Harry being an inveterate rule-breaker and how Dumbledore unreasonably favors him.

3) The climax of the Prisoner of Azkaban movie is actually much better than the book's. Heresy, I know, but the structure is much tighter and more suspenseful in the film. In the book, there are only a few, fleeting high-pressure moments on Harry and Hermione when the go back in time; in the movie, the second run-through is (as I recall) more exciting the first. Good job, screenwriter and director.

4) I really, really love the scene where Harry first meets Ron. It's so cute. Plus, it highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the Ron-Harry friendship: how each one is jealous of what the other has. (Ron wishes he had Harry's fame and money; Harry wishes he had Ron's family and wizarding-world knowledge.)

5) I finally figured out how Harry could have gotten along with the Dursleys. I've always felt like there was something he could do to try to live more peaceably with them, because although it's mostly their fault, it's a little him, too. "Keep a civil tongue in your head" clearly wouldn't be enough, though, since they're so horrible. But! Harry has lots of wizard money, and the Dursleys like regular money. He should have just converted some of his cash into some Muggle cash and paid them to be nicer to him. Heck, he could just have paid off Dudley, because Vernon and Petunia don't really get set off unless Dudley (or an owl of some sort) is involved. All he'd need to do was set an amount they (or he) would earn at the end of the summer if they avoided verbally and physically abusing him and decrease the amount any time they (or he) crossed the line. Harry's second-biggest life problem: solved.
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

One Book I Did Not Like

Ahoy there!

In my first effort to get back in the blogging saddle, I'm going to repeat something I already wrote on the internet. Baby steps!

I just finished this book called Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. As you will be able to tell from my Goodreads review, it did not live up to my expectations:

I saw this book come through at my library, and I thought "What a great topic for a book!" And it is a great topic. It's too bad it was, in my opinion, really mishandled.

The book has quite a bit of breadth (74 "states" are covered), but no depth. Each "state" gets two pages, one of which is a full-page map. The facing page contains more pictures (which are often only tangentially related to the topic); lots of tepid, uncreative jokes; and a little information.

The maps range from interesting to out-and-out bad (one clearly has hand-drawn marker on it; one has Wyoming on the western border of Kansas--which is the reason I downgraded the book from two stars). I think there were . . . maybe four? historical facts that I learned from a 160-page book, but the history was, in places, just as bad as the maps (quote: "[George Washington] was the most popular and powerful man in the world." WILDLY FALSE. WILDLY.)

I don't know who this book is aimed at. It doesn't give enough background information to teach much to American history novices (it would have helped a little if the order of the "states" were chronological instead of alphabetical), and it's too superficial to teach anything to people who already have solid American history background.

In short, this is a book with the pace and tone of an Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, but without the depth or intelligence.
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