I guarantee this scene in not in any of the Harry Potter films.

I guarantee this scene is not in any of the Harry Potter films.

Ah, the Harry Potter films.  The most successful film franchise in history, grossing in excess of $2 billion domestically and over $7.7 billion worldwide.  But there have been a lot of successful film franchises.  This isn’t just about how the films were successful – I’m not gonna write a post about the Twilight or Transformers films.  And it’s not just because I love the books – I love the Narnia books and I’m not gonna write a post about those films.  This is about a film series that I loved from the first and loved to the end and will always love.  It’s about a film franchise that, like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, took books that are very dear to my heart and brought them to the screen with absolute magnificence.

This post isn’t about the books.  I already wrote that post in my For Love of Books series and you can read it here.  This is about the films.  Because I love film and I love what they did with this series.  So, here is my third installment in my For Love of Film Series (following Hammer Horror and The Ealing Comedies).

harry_potter_and_the_sorcerers_stone_ver1Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

  • Year Rank:  #19
  • Series Rank:  #7
  • Oscar Nominations:  Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup

The first Harry Potter film both suffers and draws strength from being the first film.  On the one hand, it has the burden of having to introduce everything, so it takes a while to get going (just like the first book) and constantly has to pause to explain things.  But, on the other hand, everything is amazing and new.  We get to see Quidditch, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, all the magic of the wizarding world.  And it at looks so amazing and new.

And, just like with being the first film, this film both benefits and suffers from being directed by Chris Columbus.  Columbus is not a good director, but he is good with younger actors.  And the producers did a magnificent job finding him the exactly right cast.  Even if the actors didn’t quite grow up the way they are described in the book (Ron is tall in the books while the twins are not), they all fit their roles perfectly.  Really, what the hell were the odds that they would do such a good job back in 2001 that a decade on, every person they picked would be just right?  But they did it, and Columbus found a way to make them all work perfectly together.

The film, like the book, is really aimed towards children.  Even though we knew before the film came out how much the characters were moving towards shades of gray (book four was out before the first film), the film still insists on painting all the characters in the black and white shades that Rowling used in the first book.

It’s always easier to look back and see, when things improve, how they could have been better in the first place.  So, is the problem that Richard Harris just plays Dumbledore like a dottering old man who always happens to know everything?  Or is that because of Columbus’ directing?  Or is it because Rowling wrote the character so much like that in the first two books?  Either way, Harris seems to be the biggest drawback to the film – never really allowing Dumbledore to come to life.  But this story isn’t about Dumbledore.  It’s about those three amazing kids (who seem to become friends so much quicker on film – brought together by a lie that seems even more ridiculous in the film than it did in the book, but sometimes you can’t really change things too much) who discover friendship and magic at the same time.  What is perhaps most amazing about this group of actors though, isn’t that the kids are so good.  It’s that in a cast with Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman, among many others, the one who really stands out is Robbie Coltrane – the comedian who manages exactly the right tone for every word he says as Hagrid.

In the end, because it is the first film of what was already destined to become an enormous franchise, the filmmakers weren’t going to be allowed to change much.  So, they are in a sense, trapped by the text (although one of the few things they did change was one of the dumbest – why change how the Devil’s Snare works when it gives us that great line in the book (“Are you a witch or aren’t you?”) and instead gives us a trap that makes no sense), though when they do make changes, usually through compression, it’s often for the better, at least on screen, though I do wish they had done a better job of why Hermione stays behind – in the book it works so much better and there’s a good reason Harry has to go on alone.  So, after seeing all the joys of the magical world, we still have to see Harry escape at the end through one of the more bizarre deus ex machinas ever put on page.  True, it relates to what going on in later books – but that didn’t make it seem any less lame on the page and the screen and there was no simply no way around it.  (There is one thing that struck me as a dumb move and it’s because of the way you relate to a book – in the first book, we never know that Harry is speaking to the snake in Parseltongue because Harry doesn’t realize it, yet by the time the film was made we knew about it – so they blow the narrative continuity so they could keep the dramatic moment for the second film in which we first hear him speak it).

In the end, it does just make it into the **** range, though it still sits at almost near the bottom of the films.  It is saved from that spot by Columbus’ other outing.  But in the end, it really is a remarkable beginning, and a good sign that they found some kids who really fit the characters and who really could act.

harry_potter_and_the_chamber_of_secretsHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

  • Year Rank: #22
  • Series Rank:  #8
  • Oscar Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Visual Effects

There’s a moment very late in Sorcerer’s Stone right after Harry has been released from the hospital.  He comes into a large corridor and sees Ron and Hermione waiting up on a bridge, talking.  They turn and look at him and there is a close-up of the two of them.  It’s a Chris Columbus moment and it’s really pretty cringe-inducing.  Yet, it’s nothing compared to what happens at the end of Chamber of Secrets.  I usually stop watching the film just after Harry gets Dobby to promise never to try and save his life again.  That means I get spared the ending.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a great film, just eeking in at the bitter end of what I consider a **** film.  It continues with the strong performances from the magnificent supporting cast, led by Robbie Coltrane and including Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters, and this time around enhanced with the perfectly pompous performance of Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart (possibly the most perfect name Jo Rowling ever came up with), Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle and Mark Williams as Mr. Weasley (I absolutely love when he realizes who he is talking to, the way he says “Good lord.  Are you really?”, followed a minute later, after he is told his sons took his enchanted car to Surrey and back the night before with “Did you really?  How’d it go?” before he gets the look).  It also has the three wonderful young actors who are only getting better – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.  Especially impressive is that moment at the end when Jason Isaacs (another great addition) looks over and says “Let us hope that Mr. Potter is always around to save the day.” and the look in Radcliffe’s eyes and the perfect tone of his voice as he says “Don’t worry.  I will be.”

But it’s not just the acting that is still great, it’s not just the way that Steven Kloves has managed to find exactly what needs to be cut, often sneaking in a hint of such cuts (like when Nearly-Headless Nick greets Percy and “Miss Clearwater”).  It’s how they manage to take the parts of the first film that worked so well (the magnificent art direction, the smart makeup and costumes, the wonderful visual effects) and add to them in new and fascinating ways.  So now we get the dandified private room of Lockhart, which perfectly fits his personality (a room we will continue to return to, with vastly different results, through the next several films).  We get the wonderful look of the Chamber of Secrets, which fits exactly what we could have imagined or never thought to imagine from the description in the novel.  And, while the Quidditch match was the key visual effect of the first film, in this one we get things like Dobby (yes, Dobby is annoying throughout the film, but that shouldn’t take away from what a great job the visual effects artists did with his creation), Fawkes, the Basilisk, and especially Aragog (which could have gone horribly wrong – in an interview on the Blu-Ray, Rowling and Kloves talk about how Aragog could have just been a pathetically funny scene on film if the effects didn’t turn out right but they were both very pleased with how he looked on film).  But, with the Academy only nominating three films, in a year that had Two Towers, Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man, these effects weren’t enough to earn an Oscar nomination (and let’s not forget Minority Report was also this year).

And so, the film has all of this going for it.  And yet, it also had the direction of Chris Columbus.  Like I have said, he’s good with kids.  Otherwise, how could he get those genuinely happy smiles from Radcliffe and Grint in that scene at the end.  Of course, he never should have gotten those smiles in the first place.  Like I said, I usually stop the film with Harry and Dobby.  I skip the horribly awkward reunion scene between Hermione, Harry and Ron, with that ridiculous shot of the two boys leaning out to look at her.  And then it just gets worse with the arrival of Hagrid and an actual use of the slow-clap.  It’s been such a good film all the way through and the ending just about kills it, almost single-handedly takes it out of **** range.  It manages to just stick around, but it’s a close thing.  It was clearly time for a more adult director to take over.

harry_potter_and_the_prisoner_of_azkabanHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

  • Year Rank:  #5
  • Series Rank:  #1
  • Oscar Nominations:  Score, Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Screenplay, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup

Who is your favorite Hogwarts professor?  I know who my favorite is and who Veronica’s is.  I would bet that if you took a poll, the answer would be the same.  Part of it would come from the books – from the way he is not only a caring person, one of the best characters in all seven books, but also because he is a first-rate professor.  But I would say that a lot of it also comes from the films, specifically from this film, where he establishes himself as a stern teacher who is determined to get his students to enjoy the subject, but who is also willing to lay down the law if he has to (just look at the way he reacts to Harry not mentioning the map).  In fact, this reminds me of Robbie Coltrane in the first film, outshining Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Alan Rickman.  This film brings in such acting greats as Julie Christie, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and Gary Oldman and it’s David Thewlis, probably the least-well known of all of them (though he had been a very good actor for quite a while) who is the most impressive, bringing a well-rounded performance to Remus Lupin.

The performances of Thewlis and the others (especially Oldman, who I will get to in a minute) are part of the new adult version of Harry Potter.  There are no more ridiculous shots like the ones that mar the end of Chamber of Secrets.  Instead, we get such a brilliant opening, as the light fading in and out behind the Warner Brothers logo.  We get the magnificent shot of the Whomping Willow as it sheds snow and the effect continues right on to the camera.  We have what is probably my favorite scene in all of the films – when the five thirteen year old boys who are third-year Gryffindor students actually get the chance to be thirteen year olds – eating the candy that makes them exclaim in animal noises.  It isn’t in the books at all, which may be why I love it so much, but it is perfect and gives us a chance to actually see them for the age they are; it shows the friendship that grows up among teens who live together in such close circumstances and allows the boys to just be boys for a little bit.

But part of what makes this the best of the Harry Potter films is something I pointed out in my first review of this film – because the books would take a quantum leap in size with the fourth one (they would also take a big leap in quality – I sometimes skip rereading the first couple of books and the fourth is where they really stop being kids books) and they would have to cut so much from the later films to get them to fit, this is the one time where the film is actually better than the book.

Alfonso gives Emma some direction.

Alfonso gives Emma some direction.

And that brings us back to the performance of Gary Oldman.  I think that Thewlis gives the best performance in the film, partially because he really gets to shine throughout the film, but he also has a character that I think is a big favorite of a lot of people.  But Oldman really does something amazing with his performance as Sirius Black.  He makes that character come alive far more than he does on the page.  When Veronica read the third and fourth books, she never really got much of an attachment to the character.  This made it a serious problem (no pun intended) when the fifth book came out and she really wasn’t that upset when he went out so tragically.  After all, Jo had teased us all with a major character dying and there had been so many false trails (Mr. Weasley and McGonagall had both been seriously injured before the end) that when it turned out to be Sirius, she couldn’t get herself worked up about it.  But then, a year later, came this film, and Gary Oldman was so perfect, so touching, yet deranged, so tender (in two quick scenes – where he invites Harry to live with him, and then when he tries to talk down Lupin) and yet so full of rage at what he has been through, that he completely won her over.  Suddenly a death that hadn’t bothered her too much when she read it in the book was going to be quite upsetting when we got to the fifth film – his performance had made her really care about the character (and woe really was coming to her with that scene in the forest in the 7th book and 8th film).

And that could bring me to Michael Gambon.  There are a number of reasons why I think the series gets so much better with this film.  Part of it is that Chris Columbus stopped directing them.  Part of it was that the three young actors (and actually, all the young actors – let’s not just stop with Dan, Rupert and Emma) were maturing so quickly and so perfectly into the roles.  Part of it was the inclusion of Lupin and Sirius, such great characters who were also so perfectly brought to life by Thewlis and Oldman.  But a major part of it is the replacement of Richard Harris (who had died) with Michael Gambon.  In the first two books and the first two films, Dumbledore seemed like the character who shows up just when you need him to, explains what needs to be explained, always knows what’s going on.  But Gambon is so much more subtle with his performance that we learn that there are real depths to Dumbledore.  I can’t imagine Harris playing Dumbledore effectively in the battle in Order of the Phoenix or at the end of Half-Blood Prince.

And I almost wrote the final paragraph of this review without even mentioning the look.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Because Veronica does.  It’s that great moment, not even hinted at the book, but done so wonderfully by the actors involved (and, I presume, the director) when Buckbeak makes that threatening move towards Harry, and Hermione suddenly grabs Ron’s hand.  They look at each other and she gives him that wonderful look, that says so much more than any words could have said, that choreographs every thing that will come between them in the final two books (not published yet at this point) and the final five films.  And she does it with just one amazing look.

This is not just a great film – it is a great adaptation that cuts to the core of the characters and brings them to life on-screen.  It is expertly written, it is magnificently directed, has amazing production values (I think the visual effects are a big step up from the first two films) and great acting.  It stops being a kids film and simply is a great fantasy film.  And like so many great films, it has a perfect ending.  We don’t need the exposition at the end, don’t need more story.  We just need to see that thirteen year old boy acting like a thirteen year old, up on his new broom for the first time and speeding straight into the camera.  And then, just for fun, they give us the best credits sequence of any of the films.

harry_potter_and_the_goblet_of_fireHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

  • Year Rank:  #16
  • Series Rank:  #6
  • Oscar Nominations:  Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup

With the making of the fourth film, the filmmakers suddenly had some choices to make.  The first, and most important one, of course, was what kind of length hair would the male students at Hogwarts have.  So, okay, that’s not really what the most important choice was, but I wonder if they were trying to say something about phases that kids go through at that age – that they would all decide to grow out their hair in the same year.  And it’s something that makes sense, but I always end up thinking of Goblet of Fire as the one where Harry, Ron, Fred and George all have long hair.

Of course, the actual important choice had to do with how much of the book to keep in the film.  The page numbers of the first three books had been creeping up, from 309 in the first (U.S. hardcover), to 341 to 435.  But suddenly there was Goblet of Fire at a solid 734 pages.  That meant there was a lot of things that were going to have be left out from the book.  And there were certain vital things that absolutely had to be kept in because they moved the plot.  There were other things that would be very easy to drop (everything to do with Ludo Bagman, anything to do with S.P.E.W.).  But that was still going to leave other questions – do you use Rita Skeeter (yes) and how much (less than in the book)?  If you cut out the house elf subplot how does Harry find out about gillyweed?  (The same way that was intended by the character doing the nudging – get Neville to tell him).  But there is just so much in the book and they didn’t want to put too much of a burden on those who weren’t reading the books, so they really streamlined the film.  And sometimes it seems that just too much is happening and that’s why this film sits down at sixth.

hp-twilightThe fourth film does follow where the others had left off, adding to the already over-loaded list of British acting greats.  Since each film also lost actors (no Thewlis, just a quick cameo from Oldman), they also had to keep adding more and more.  They threw in Frances de la Tour (though she gets almost no lines), Brendan Gleeson (who is brilliant) and Ralph Fiennes, one of the most powerful actors in the last thirty years to perfectly embody the evil of Voldemort (who better than the man who was the singular embodiment of the evil of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List?).  But the interesting thing is what happened to two of the lesser known actors in the cast.  It was easy to watch Goblet of Fire at the time and think, well they cast the pretty-boy role of Cedric Diggory quite well and they really nailed the lunatic devotion of Barty Crouch Jr..  Of course, they weren’t exactly known actors back then.  How weird is it to go back now and see an actor who would be ridiculed for the stupid role of Edward Cullen in one of the dumbest movie series ever filmed and another who would become the ultimate embodiment of cool as the Doctor (possibly the most beloved Doctor of all time, Tom Baker fans notwithstanding).  That’s how we end up with the kind of pictures you see on both the left and the right.hp-who

But all of that doesn’t change how well both actors work within their roles.  And how well all of them worked.  But it does point out another growing problem with the films and one especially for this one that holds it back a little.  They were getting a bit too over-loaded.  Thus, the Dursleys were cut out entirely, as was Mrs Weasley (good choices for the narrative flow).  But we also get very few lines for Maggie Smith and especially Robbie Coltrane (which is too bad since he gave probably the best performance in the first film).

But, as usual, the technical aspects keep getting better and better.  We get the magnificent chase scene between Harry and the dragon (which, frankly, they could have shortened and used the time for more narrative, but it’s especially well-done), we get the wonderful makeup on Voldemort (the first time we actually see how he looks after all those descriptions), some of which is great makeup, and some of which is great visual effects (the nose was all done in post-production).  There are more sets (the maze, the graveyard, the way the great hall looks for the ball) that earns it a second Oscar nomination in the category.  In the end, though, maybe Mike Newell, the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, just wasn’t the right director for the next step of the series.

harry_potter_and_the_order_of_the_phoenix_ver2Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

  • Year Rank:  #14
  • Series Rank:  #5
  • Oscar nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup

There’s a minute and a half stretch early in the fifth film that illustrates several different things about this film series.  The first point has to do with the adaptation process, the second with the trickiness of doing a long film series and the third deals with how a film is appreciated (or not) by awards groups.

The scene I am talking about is the one in which Harry is lead by several members of the Order of the Phoenix away from Privet Drive and to Grimmauld Place.  It demonstrates that absolute fidelity to source material is not a complete must.  In the book, this scene isn’t particularly dramatic – there is a lot of back and forth before they ever leave the house, there is talk over the process and the flight is long and cold and more than a little boring.  All of these things make sense of course, because of the importance and danger of moving Harry and keeping secret their final destination.  But so much of that is changed for the film.  It all happens really rather fast, there is the dramatic scene of the brooms sweeping across to them (which works quite well on film) and there is the playfulness of the flight – of Harry and Tonks goading each other on their brooms and riding gleefully up the Thames (which wouldn’t happen in the book because it’s unlikely they would have gone upriver that far, let alone be out in the open like that).  In the book Lupin is one of the advance guard (since he knows Harry), but in the film he is left for the scene at Grimmauld Place, which works perfectly, since he is able to stand there, smiling, as Harry and Sirius greet each other.  It is a wonderful film scene – not at all like what is in the book, but so wonderfully cinematic and brilliantly executed that it is a much better choice than simply dramatizing what was in the book.

The second point about that scene, which is called “Flight of the Order of the Phoenix” has to do with the additions and changes you make with a series this large.  I mention the name of the scene because that is the title of the track on the soundtrack.  The series got off to a brilliant start partially because John Williams composed what became an almost instantly iconic score – absolutely perfect for the series and continued on through to the final moments of the epilogue in the last film.  But John Williams would leave the series after the third film and the work would pass to other composers.  All of them would do good work but the best of the non-Williams soundtracks is the fifth, composed by Nicholas Hooper, and no piece in it is as good as “Flight of the Order of the Phoenix.”  It only last 1:32 but it is stirring and passionate – you can almost feel the joy of Harry on the broom when you listen to the piece.  Many of the cast members stayed the same but the crew kept changing over time and the results were remarkable.

This sums it up pretty well if you ever want to make D&D characters from Harry Potter.

This sums it up pretty well if you ever want to make D&D characters from Harry Potter.

And the cast wasn’t staying perfectly the same.  They kept losing people but they kept adding people as well.  This time the big addition was Imelda Staunton, giving one of the best performances in any of the films, so perfectly, delightfully evil in a way so reminiscent of so many people in power – because they are convinced that they are doing the right thing.  And there is of course Helena Bonham-Carter, who doesn’t get much time until the end, but is the embodiment of what D&D players know as Chaotic Evil (Umbridge is more Lawful Evil – I had thought of both those things before finding the chart on the right, which I got from here, credit where credit is due).  But there are smaller roles as well and this time there are lesser-known actors filling the parts quite well, including Natalia Tena as Tonks (again, a non-book scene, when Tonks gets mad at Moody and her hair changes color – a perfect illustration of what she can do and totally in character) and George Harris as Kingsley (whose voice was perfect as Katanga in Raiders and whose voice is perfect here, especially for the line “You may not like Dumbledore, Minister, but you have to admit, the man has style.”).

The third point is specifically aimed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  How many Oscar nominations did this film receive?  That would be zero.  The Nicholas Hooper score is better, in my opinion, than all the nominated score except the winner.  The sound effects, which were remarkable, were overlooked in favor of the over-bearing noise of Transformers.  And while, thankfully, the effects in Transformers didn’t win the Oscar, they were nominated.  In a year in which the flight up the river, the thestrals, the arrival of the Death Eaters, and then the Order and the amazing wizards duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort took the visual effects in the series to a new height, they couldn’t even bother to nominate it.  Hell, it didn’t even make the semi-finalists, pushed out in favor of films like Evan Almighty and 300.  And, worst of all, it made the longlist for Makeup then was passed over for the fat suit in Norbit, one of the single worst nominations in the history of the Academy.

Tom and Albus resolve their differences in an amicable manner.

Tom and Albus resolve their differences in an amicable manner.

I realize I haven’t talked much about the rest of the film – about the look of happiness in Radcliffe and Oldman’s eyes when they greet and the look of peacefulness in Thewlis’ eyes at the same time.  Or the way that Bonnie Hunt as Ginny, gives the tiniest little scowl when Hermione mentions that Cho couldn’t keep her eyes off Harry.  Or the smart way they changed things to have the truth come out about Neville’s parents without working in the trip to St. Mungo’s.  Or the nice little nod that Radcliffe has when Hermione says “I’m sure that Harry’s kissing was more than satisfactory.”  Or the delightful irony that the three worst teachers at Hogwarts – Lockhart, Trelawney and Umbridge, have now been played by Branagh, Thompson and Staunton, good friends who all star together in Peter’s Friends (with HP British audio reader Stephen Fry) and Much Ado About Nothing.

This book, in some ways, is my least favorite to read.  It has some nice moments (Fred and George’s departure; the scene between James, Sirius and Remus before it gets out of hand) but there is too much weighing it down.  The film lightens the tone a bit – even though we feel the presence of Umbridge, it isn’t as over-bearing as it is in the book.  And some of the darker moments are left out (the attack on McGonagal).  And we get some humor along with all of it (there is a wonderful Hooper track called “Professor Umbridge” in the moments where she is enforcing her rule at the school and there is a lot of levity in the scene where it could have been much darker).

harry_potter_and_the_half_blood_princeHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

  • Year Rank:  #8
  • Series Rank:  #2
  • Oscar nominations:  Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup

The third film is the best in the series for a number of reasons, but primarily because it has the best direction.  The sixth film is the second best in the series for a number of reasons, but primarily because it has the best screenplay.  This is perhaps ironic because this is the film that bears the least resemblance to its source material.  It is probably my favorite of all the books and my second favorite of the films and the reasons are completely different.

I already discussed in my For Love of Books post why it is my favorite of the books but the key aspect is all the back story that it gives us – that history of Voldemort and his lineage, how he came to be and then how he came to be the most dangerous dark wizard of all-time.  There are several memories we are privy to, memories that give us as whole a history of Tom Riddle as we could ever get.  But in the films, so much of that is gone – we are down to just two memories and both of those are heavily truncated.  And I’m not complaining – what works so well on the page wasn’t going to work well on the screen.  They give us vital bits of information that help Harry on his trail and someone who hasn’t read the books is going to be quite confused in the final two films with how much Harry seems to know about Horcruxes.  But the focus of the film is in telling a tighter story and those bits of history interrupt the narrative flow.

So what is it about this film that is so good?  Well, just look at the opening of the film – the attack on Diagon Alley, the destruction of the Millennium Bridge and the retrieval of Harry at the tube station.  None of those are things from the book – the kidnapping of Ollivander is simply talked about, we only hear about a bridge that has collapsed and the collapse was done in a much more subtle manner so as to not seem like magic, and we no longer have the scene where Dumbledore reprimands the Dursleys for their treatment of Harry.  And yet, this perfectly establishes the atmosphere of the film – the dread in the Wizarding world, the feeling of terror out in the wider world we learn about in the first chapter of the book and the great scene of Harry being a sixteen year old boy flirting with a good looking older girl (and great use of British slang – “A bit of tosser” is how Harry describes himself).

And look at the performances.  We get our latest addition, of course, with Jim Broadbent joining the crew (and getting his requisite major share of screen time as always befits the new teacher) and we also get Helen McCrory, but she’s really just warming up for the next two films.  And we get some really great scenes from Dan Radcliffe (when he takes Felix it’s like he’s drunk and he’s magnificent, especially in his early interaction with Slughorn), Emma Watson (“Is this how it feels when you look at Ginny with Dean?” – again, not a line in the book), Rupert Grint (he finally doesn’t have to act pathetic, plus he gets the hilarious love potion scene) and, most importantly, Helena Bonham-Carter.  In the fifth film we get a good look at Carter at the end, but in this film, with very few actual lines, but a bunch of screen time, she really embodies that chaotic evil.  And it’s in those scenes where she isn’t even present in the book.  In the climax of the film, her presence is what makes this such a violation of all the security at Hogwarts (and I’m totally fine with them changing the battle to what happens here because of the battle that would hit in the final film).  But what’s really key is the Christmas scene at the Burrow.

This is a scene, of course, that doesn’t exist at all in the book.  But it’s used in the film to represent all the attacks going on out in the world while the kids are (mostly) safe at Hogwarts.  It shows the true chaos that can happen just outside your front door.  And it keeps everyone in character – Harry blindly running forward and Ginny rushing to his side, Lupin and Tonks doing what they need to, Bellatrix acting like a complete sociopath (“I killed Sirius Black.”).  It works very effectively, embodying all that is wrong and dangerous out in the world and makes it really hit home.  And it’s counterpointed later by the story Slughorn tells about the fish, a story that’s not in the book.

And then of course, there are the lines that aren’t in the book, whether they come from Hermione and Harry (“She’s only interested in you because she thinks you’re the chosen one.”  “But I am the chosen one.”), Ginny and Ron (“He’s covered in blood again.  Why is it he’s always covered in blood?”  “Well it looks like it’s his own this time.”), Hermione (“Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.”), McGonagall and Ron (“Why is it, when something happens, it’s always you three?”  “Believe me, Professor, I’ve been asking myself that for six years.”), Hermione again (“They’re only holding hands.  And snogging.”) or even Dumbledore (“Ah, to be young and feel love’s keen sting.”).

It’s not a perfect film, of course.  It does have to cut a lot of narrative information and we have to move away from the notion of the Half-Blood Prince (and the search for who it could have been is barely mentioned) that when we learn who it is at the end it is considerably less dramatic than it was in the original book.  But it’s so well-written, so well done, from the first minute, to the last beautiful shot of Hogwarts, how can we complain?

And all of that doesn’t even mention the talent on the film.  We have Nicholas Hooper again doing the music, sometimes re-using themes he had created for the fifth film (like in Fred and George’s store), but also coming up with nice new music, whether romantic (when Ginny kisses Harry), stirring (the arrival at the cave) or moving (the music when they all raise their wands reminded me of Barber’s Adagio for Strings).  We have amazing new visual effects, especially for the fight scene with the Inferi.  We have incredible new sets from Stuart Craig, some of the best work he’s done on any of the films.  We have some of the best editing of the series, with smart cuts (when we first cut to the train, when we cut away from Ron and Harry on the train after “You die”, the rapid cuts when Harry staggers away from the Inferi).  And then we have the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel.  Delbonnel had already been Oscar nominated for Amelie and A Very Long Engagement and that kind of perpetual twilight from the latter, with its muted colors, is very much at the forefront here.  The look of the film is worlds away from the previous films and it brings a whole new angle to the films (indeed, it would earn the only Cinematography nomination for any of the films).

harry_potter_and_the_deathly_hallows_part_iHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

  • Year Rank:  #8
  • Series Rank:  #4
  • Oscar nominations:  Art Direction, Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup

Of all eight films in the series this is the one that a newcomer would perhaps have the most difficulty in following what is going on.  Someone who had seen the six previous films might have an idea what is going on – they might remember what a Horcrux is and what they have to do with destroying Voldemort.  They might remember Wormtail, who hasn’t had a line of dialogue since the fourth film.  They might remember John Hurt as Ollivander, who’s been missing since the first film.  They’ll have a better shot at remembering Dobby, who such an important part of the second film, though his scenes in the later books were cut for their films.  But they’ll be lost when yet another Weasley shows up, explaining who he is and why he’s scarred.  They’ll have no idea what to make of Mundungus Fletcher (whose scenes, by the way, are possibly the most awkward in the film).  There’s no question that the real fans, the ones who had already read the books, are gonna be the ones this film was really made for.

And my hope is that those fans will appreciate what has been done.  Look at the opening scenes of the film.  Instead of focusing in just on Harry, we have a montage of great scenes, of what Hermione and Ron are turning their backs on in order to stand by their friend.  That opening scene, where Hermione (seemingly without their knowledge) erases all knowledge of her existence in her parents’ brains is heart-breaking (and is the first piece we get from Alexandre Desplat, the French composer who would do such a magnificent job finishing the work started by John Williams and continued by Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper).

It’s not long before we’ve been introduced to all the characters and we’re up in the skies and in battle.  And here’s something that Steve Kloves (who did a remarkable job on all the films, though he didn’t write the fifth) did that was actually better than what Jo put in her book.  In the book, as you may recall, Harry uses the spell Expelliarmus and it gives him away as the real Harry.  I thought, even reading the book the first time, that this was a stretch.  But with Harry having let Hedwig go, only to have her die in battle while trying to protect him, and for that to give Harry away, well that’s tragic and poignant all in one.  (We also have the nice scene with the train being stopped which is also not in the book and really serves to just make certain Neville is in the film, but it’s very well done).

From here on, they do a good job with the rest of the film.  The lead-up to the wedding, including the relationship issues (I love the look on George’s face when he interrupts Harry and Ginny) is all well-done and they get all the important information in there during the reception before it all breaks up into anarchy.  Is it enough to keep the casual fan from getting horribly confused?  Probably not, but they at least make it clear what will be spelled out in no uncertain terms in the final film – the Dumbledore was keeping things back and they have to decide how much they want to trust what he told them.

These final two films are very different films than the first six in the series.  Yes, they are all fantasy films.  But the first six were solidly placed at Hogwarts.  They were boarding school films and they dealt with the problems that teenagers have when they are away at school.  It was just a much more interesting school.  But this film is a road movie, almost a Hitchcock film in the way they are being pursued and must finish their quest if they have any hope of coming out of this alive (and the final film is really a war film).  We get to see these characters away from school and see how well they really do on their own.

We also get the nice moment that has no corresponding scene in the books (a lot of the times the things that are new for the films at least have some sort of connection, but this is pure brilliance on the filmmakers part) – the use of the Nick Cave song “O Children”, with the nice little dance between Harry and Hermione, trying to forget the world outside, trying to forget anything not right there in the tent before them, and yet, resisting the urge to do anything more than just that dance.  It’s one of the few times the outside world make an entrance and the music is perfectly used.

Once it was announced that the final book would be split into two films (which was a good idea – it really makes for two very different films because of the breaking point) I figured what the breaking point would be.  And to their credit, they did end the film there and it made for a poignant ending – poor Dobby who has done so much for them, only to be struck down.

There are new characters of course.  I have to mention that.  But I’ve saved it for the last for a reason.  First, we have Domhnall Gleason, Brendan’s son, who is now becoming better known then he was in 2010 because of films like Anna Karenina.  Then there is Rhys Ifans, who is so perfectly cast as Xenophilius Lovegood.  And there is Bill Nighy.  There had been rumors early on that Nighy would be cast as Rufus Scrimgeour and Veronica was especially excited.  But, after so much talk in the books about the lion’s mane of hair he has, she was just really disappointed that they didn’t do more with the hair.  The performance was just fine.  But it was such a letdown that Veronica feels the need to mention it every time we watch the film.  And I guess I should give her the last word.

harry_potter_and_the_deathly_hallows_part_twoHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

  • Year Rank:  #7
  • Series Rank:  #2
  • Oscar nominations:  Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup

The students line up in the Great Hall to be lectured by Snape.  He warns them about the dangers of harboring Harry Potter.  He tries to make it clear how much danger any of them could be in.  And then out steps Harry from the line of students.  And we get that moment between the two of them and Harry’s line: “It seems despite your exhaustive defensive strategies, you still have a bit of a security problem, Headmaster.”  And in walk the whole of the Order of the Phoenix behind them, ready for the fight.

This, of course, was much different than in the book – Harry had already begun searching for the diadem in the book, had already run into McGonagall before Snape entered the picture (and Harry wasn’t revealed at that point).  So, with them already changing the scene so much would they change a key part of the scene?  Harry is still under the cloak when McGonagall comes upon Snape, who questions her.  And in the middle of his question: “Professor McGonagall moved faster than Harry could have believed: her wand slashed through the air and for a split second Harry thought that Snape must crumple, unconscious, but the swiftness of his Shield Charm was such that McGonagall was thrown off balance.  She brandished her wand at a torch on the wall and it flew out of its bracket.”  It is McGonagall who drives Snape from the castle, and here was Harry standing before Snape, ready to duel him.

And then she steps forward, not only to protect her student, but also on the attack.  Watch closely and you’ll see her throw a spell before Snape does, that he only acts defensively (and actually uses his defenses to take the Carrows out of the fight).  It’s not the scene from the book, but is very much like it in spirit.

In fact, in pure fidelity to the books, this might be the book that strays the most.  All of the scenes which are closest to the book are truncated (the conversations with Griphook and Ollivander at the start, the Kings Cross scene, the back story of Snape and Lily).  And so many of the scenes are vastly different – the face-off against Snape with the whole school watching in the Great Hall, the death scene at the boathouse instead of the Shrieking Shack, the first kiss between Ron and Hermione without Harry as a witness, the final battle taking place in the courtyard rather than the Great Hall, with the key information occurring during several parts of the battle around the castle rather than all in the Great Hall with the entire school as a witness.  But all of these scenes stay true to the spirit of the book.  The characters stay true, even when dialogue is different.

Just look at one particular scene – when Harry interacts with Neville and Ginny on the stairs.  Neville is mad for Luna; after Neville departs we then have the quick kiss between Harry and Ginny and her “I know” as she realizes he still has work to do.  The first part wasn’t in the book at all, though it makes perfect sense.  The second part wasn’t even in the script, but was director David Yates’ idea on a spur-of-the-moment because it so fit the scene and the characters.  So much of this film series has been about this – staying true to the characters, not only as they were developed originally in the books, but also as they have developed over the course of the first seven films.

And of course the production values have stayed great, right until the end.  Look at just one scene – the statues.  Look at how good the visual effects are, how good the acting is (the great line from McGonagall: “I always wanted to do that spell” and the look from Molly), how good the music is (the same music would be used again later for the courtyard scene, which itself is a masterwork of editing and putting together a scene with music but without dialogue) and how well it all fits together.

Then there is the scene absolutely guaranteed to make Veronica cry: the scene in the forest.  There isn’t much in the way of new actors added to this film (there is Kelly MacDonald, who is effective in her one scene), but we get some great returning performances (although the best may be Helena Bonham-Carter, who not only has to be perfectly evil as Bellatrix, but also has to be Hermione pretending to be Bellatrix, and she’s amazing at it).  It’s touching enough to have James and Lily there, but to also have the return of Gary Oldman as Sirius and the final moment for David Thewlis as Lupin, well, it is almost as heart-breaking on the screen as it was on the page.  This is the one scene that they had to get exactly right and that may be why it is the one scene that is almost verbatim as it was in the book.

And then there is the epilogue.  There were always going to be critics, and it isn’t perfect.  But the makeup is effective enough at making them look older, even when it isn’t flattering (and if you don’t like the makeup you should see the first attempt at it – they definitely made the right decision to go back and reshoot the epilogue).  And it gives us that final tie-up for all the loose ends.  We are back at the train again, just where the whole adventure started, and we even see a chocolate frog climb in the window, much like the one that climbed out seven films before.  And the film ends in exactly the right spot, not using any of the brilliant music that’s come from the later films, but going back to that original score, the music that became almost instantly iconic and tightening the focus on just those three faces that have become a part of our lives and fading to black.

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