July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

The eight movie, ten year, billion-dollar saga stumbles across the finish line.
I didn't really appreciate how high my expectations were until I discovered how disappointed I was by the conclusion of our decade-long epic. The quality of Potter 3-6 had been so consistent that I didn't really consider the possibility of a misstep.

Perhaps those expectations weighed too heavily on the creators of this movie. Perhaps the temptations of 3-D can be faulted. Many times in the last decade, the Potter films have varied wildly from the source material, almost always for the better. For the first time, especially the second half of 7.2 (7.2.2?), the changes from page to screen seem arbitrary and lessen the impact of what should be the most powerful storytelling of the whole series.

Let's back up and appreciate the successes. The movie is surefooted right up until Harry is "killed" by Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. The opening scenes at Shell Cottage are terrific. The conversation between Harry and Griphook the goblin was outstanding. Acting inside a full face mask is a thankless task, but who better than Warwick Davis to nail it. Davis has been playing Ewoks, leprechauns, dwarves, elves, and paranoid androids for over 25 years. The negotiation before the Gringotts break-in? My wife said "it was like a Guy Richie movie!"

Horcruxes: screenwriter Steve Kloves found an efficient workaround to the Horcrux hunting. Instead of lengthy detective work, Harry Potter, being a Horcrux himself, can sense the presence of other Horcruxes. This helps the movie immensely. Not only does this streamline the search-- when Harry's in a room with a Horcrux, he can sense it -- but it helps bolster the idea that he's a Horcrux himself. I didn't even notice until days later, that we never learn anything about the Hufflepuff Cup Horcrux which they steal from the Gringotts vault.

The Malfoys: Who would have thought that we would learn to pity the Malfoys so profoundly? Draco seals his reputation as a classic bully/coward in the Room of Requirement, when he flees at the first sign of a real threat. His parents, who care about their son before even Voldemort, take him and flee Hogwarts at the first opportunity.

Don't Cry For Me Severus: Speaking of reversals of allegiance, Alan Rickman sealed the deal and made us all cry as the ultimate hero, and martyr, of the series. Such a complex, conflicted, and in the end, emotionally honest character. Bravo. I was hopeful that Snape's backstory in the pensieve would be handled well, and I was not disappointed. I don't remember whether, in the book, Snape appears in Godric's Hollow and find his true love Lily Potter dead? It works amazingly well in the movie.

Letdowns and Arbitrary Changes

Ron and Hermione: I was surprised how much silently standing behind Harry they do in this movie. The much anticipated first kiss was only OK. Ron's head was in the way! Also, they had to rewrite the circumstances: in the book, Hermione kisses Ron in front of everyone, after Ron remembers that the house elves (Hermione's pet charity) need to be evacuated from Hogwarts. Thankfully, the whole house elf subplot was completely omitted from the movies. Instead, a scene which we don't see in the book -- Hermione destroying a Horcrux in the Chamber of Secrets -- is shown, and they kiss there, by themselves in front of a green screen, instead.

SIDE NOTE: Harry was in the Chamber of Secrets only 5 years earlier, but it feel like 100 years ago!

How the Mighty Have Fallen: They must have seen this coming, but it must have been disappointing for the actors playing the Dursleys to see their roles in the saga evaporate. (I didn't say *I* was disappointed!) It feels like Harry spent 45 minutes with the Dursleys in the Sorcerer's Stone, but 10 years later, Mrs. Dursley doesn't even get any lines! Her younger self does make an appearance in a flashback, though.

Snape's Death in the Boathouse? I don't even remember there ever being any boats on The Black Lake, never mind a Hogwarts boathouse. Snape's death scene has moved from the Shrieking Shack to the boathouse. I don't know why. I suspect it's so the director could show Snape's 'Death by Snake' without pushing the movie into rated R territory: Snape is attacked against a frosted glass wall. We see his gruesome death with Harry, Ron, Hermione, through the glass dimly. Otherwise, it might have been harder to show the intensity of the deadly snake attack without grossing us out too much. That's my theory, anyway.

The Kings Cross scene misses the whole point of the conversation. In the book, this is Harry's chance to finally lash out at Dumbledore for misleading and controlling Harry. Harry's trust in Dumbledore is shaken, and Dumbledore apologizes, and regrets all the poor choices of his youth. Instead, we get some meaningless platitudes from a soporific Dumbledore. It's like his lines were torn from a Deep Thoughts 365 calendar.

The blocking and logistics of the remainder of the plot are almost all different from the book. In the movie, Voldemort + the Death Eaters enter Hogwarts with Hagrid and the "dead" Potter. Voldemort taunts the good guys, but Neville, instead of killing Nagini, launches into a lengthy Hallmark-worthy, mortifyingly bad speech about how Harry isn't really dead if he lives in our hearts (I can't believe I am typing this). For some reason, Voldemort is struck dumb and does nothing while this goes on. This is the same Voldemort who, hours earlier, killed Pius Thicknesse only because Thicknesse spoke out of turn at the wrong moment. But when Longbottom shows up Voldemort with a ridiculous pro-Harry speech, he's suddenly turned lenient?

As Harry reveals he's not dead, the battle resumes, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione pursuing Nagini, then Harry and Voldemort battling each other alone, flying together from place to place in that black smoke-trail spell thingy. The pursuit with Nagini does give Ron and Hermione something to do besides battling generic Death Eaters, I guess. The cynic in me suspects the ridiculous curlicue rollercoaster ride was added to show off the 3D effects. They have to give the 3D audience's their money's worth...right?

Bellatrix Lestrange's death by duel with Mrs. Weasley is a very satisfying confrontation in the book. Mrs. Weasley even calls her a bitch! In the movie, Bellatrix turns into 1,000 pixels and explodes. This was totally ridiculous. Why are they fancying up her death with really cruddy effects? The emotional impact is completely neutralized.

What's most important is the ultimate duel between Harry and Voldy, and boy, did they mess it up. I remember reading this scene with my heart pounding. I often read too fast, scanning ahead, skipping detail in favor of action. In this case, it took all my will not to skip ahead. I focused on every word as the tension mounted, building, building...

In the movie, Harry and Voldy shoot their final spells at each other in slow-motion, until Voldy dissolves into ash in slow motion. No one witnesses this. All the dialog is ommitted.

It's almost as if the emotional payoff of their struggle is less important than the actual physical confrontation, which is the opposite point of the book. In the book, what was daring and surprising about the final "duel" between Harry and Voldy was that Harry basically disarmed Voldy with his point-by-point dismissal of all of Voldy's assumptions. By the time they actually cast their opposing, trademark spells, Harry had already proven, QED, that Harry had won. The death of Voldy was only a capper, not the actual proof.
Why does Voldy have to dissolve into ash in slow motion? Why can't he just fall to the ground, dead? More 3D effects in place of genuine emotion. I haven't seen this much show-off "look at the magic we can do" since the first movie.

The Coda: They couldn't leave it out, but the "19 Years Later" coda was too distracting to work. All I was thinking about is "how well did they make these 20 year olds look 40?" I still got misty when Harry describes Snape as "the bravest man I ever knew".

So, a bit of a stumble to the end, like a Olympic sprinter who crosses the finish line while losing their balance and falling on their head. The tone was all over the place in the last half of the movie, and most of the conclusion had no dialog at all. The way I figure it, they'll begin to remake these movies in 2025, which means the next actor to play Harry Potter will be born any day now...

My grade: B-minus

TRAILER NOTE: The teaser trailer for next summer's Dark Knight Rises was incomprehensible. Commissioner Gordon is in a hospital bed, mumbling through an oxygen mask to an offscreen Batman. I only caught every other word. I am not more excited to see #3 than I was already... which isn't much.

AUDIENCE NOTE: We were almost entertained by an epic showcase of douchebaggery on display next to us. As the movie is beginning (Voldemort stealing the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's crypt), a couple arrives in our row of seats. Next to me is an empty seat, two ladies, and another empty seat. This newly-arrived woman asks if my adjacent seat is free. I say yes. Then the woman's date asks the two ladies if they could move down to create a pair of free seats. Since the movie is already playing, and there are other pairs of seats free, the ladies were justified in saying no. Then the DB boyfriend starts to complain to them about it, while the woman would rather just sit separately than cause a scene. This is when the shushing begins in earnest. My policy is, no shushing until the action actually begins onscreen. Since this scene was a repeat from the end of the last movie, and the title of the film hadn't come up yet, I bit my tongue. The guy continued to grumble, and the shushing became more insistent. Thankfully, this foursome were silent through the movie, until we were all exiting through the lobby, and the guy restarted his unapologetic complaining about the ladies refusing to move over. Seeing such a pure douchebag in public is like spotting an albino squirrel: so rare, we must appreciate the wondrous diversity of Mother Nature. (Embassy Theater #5, Waltham)