July 16, 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (07/16/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 adapts the second half of the final book into a reasonably exciting 2 hour, 10 minute movie that brings the series to an adequate finish. I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I have very conflicted feelings here. If we're being honest, I should say that I haven't really enjoyed the later entries in the film franchise for a while now, and deep down, I was kinda hoping that this last film would make up for the mild shittiness of the previous ones instead of just being "a little better."

I've read and re-read the books a few times apiece and consider them to be well-written, deeply layered stories that only seem to get better the more closely they're studied. I admired (or at least enjoyed) the first four films as well, but all that changed with part 5... That would be when director David Yates took over, and decided to ride the franchise out until the end (more on him in a bit).

Deathly Hallows - Part 2 picks up quite literally at the end of Deathly Hallows - Part 1, meaning that in the future, pale high school and college kids the world over will be able to watch both films in a fairly seamless five-hour block instead of, you know, leaving the house, making friends, and attempting to have sex with actual women their own age.

The evil Lord Voldemort (pictured right) has acquired the fabled Elder Wand, the most powerful wand ever created... an instrument with which he can maybe finally end Harry Potter for good. Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione and Ron are searching for (and attempting to destroy) the "Horcruxes," objects in which Voldemort has hidden bits of his soul... meaning that if his body gets all f**ked up again (like it did back when he tried to kill Harry as a baby originally), he'll still be alive in some form and free to appear in more sequels. Since movies 6 and 7 - Part 1 failed to stage the parts of the books that would have provided our hero with adequate clues as to where these objects might be, Harry and his friends must jump to conclusions that would seem far-fetched and flimsy even in the Adam West Batman TV series:

Nevertheless, after an astonishingly lifeless opening where Harry almost casually asks John Hurt about wand lore - compare that to the fierce urgency of the same scene in the book - and then lightly begs for help breaking into the wizard bank from Warwick Davis (appearing in dual roles, a touching tribute to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or perhaps to Eddie Murphy in Norbit), the gang is finally off on their adventure, which will eventually take them back to Hogwarts School For Witchcraft And Wizardry and to the big-ass series climax.

It's hard to argue with the power of a good climax, and there's no denying that this is a satisfying one. Nevertheless, I can't help but regard it with a certain amount of disappointment: Not because it's over now, but after all those years spent anticipating it and wondering what it might feel like, when I got there, I guess I was just hoping it would have been better than it was.

Getting back to the movies, though, the series is similarly disappointing in that it started well, gradually got better, and then... with Yates' arrival... became really erratic and uneven. You can gripe about Chris Columbus's watered down 80s era Spielberg / Lucas style approach to parts 1 and 2 10 years ago, but if nothing else, it's tough to dispute that Columbus cast the series brilliantly and established a number of iconic sets and images that would benefit the films that followed immeasurably. I would also give a lot of credit to the wonderful part 3's Alfonso Cuarón and part 4's Mike Newell for imbuing the films with a little more maturity and creativity when they needed them, and for going through a lot of trouble to at least get you to somewhat feel the story, even if a good deal of it was going unexplored.

The three books that Yates adapted into these last four movies represent a failure to introduce interesting pieces of a multi-part story in a deliberate, memorable way, and to get them all to mean something powerful by the end. So many moments in Deathly Hallows - Part Deux seem to lack the proper set-up and payoff because the series had omitted the surrounding elements earlier. Of course, Yates had much longer, much more plot-and-mythology heavy text to adapt than the earlier directors did, but even back on 5 I was a little baffled that he put a lot of effort into staging aspects of the books that didn't seem that vital in the grand scheme of things, while simultaneously blowing through or outright discarding components that did.

His pictures were the first that decided to be companions to the books, rather than adaptations of them. Sometimes he'd just show an image of some major plot point without really explaining it or getting into how the characters feel about it, perhaps under the thinking that since these are very popular books, most people in audience have probably read them, and getting into details would be superfluous: An approach that's dead-ass wrong on every level. He decided to spend his screen time in other puzzling ways too, focusing on the teen angst stuff (maybe under the notion that the Potter movies could stand to be more like Twilight?), over-blown action sequences, and alarmingly often, entire scenes where Harry, Ron or Hermione just sit and look sad, without much dialogue or context to clue the audience in. As in the earlier movies, he frequently holds the actors in uncomfortable wide shots, perfectly highlighting their inexperience. There are awkward pauses between lines that in theory could have been removed in the editing, had Yates allowed editor Mark Day to actually use some of the coverage they got on set.

The films have not suffered financially under Yates' guidance, but his main crime, as I see it, is that he has taken three increasingly engaging novels and made films that oscillate between dull and incoherent with the occasional exciting action scene sprinkled in.

In that sense, Yates' telling of Deathly Hallows - Part 2 benefits greatly from consisting of 70% action, but what about the other stuff... the character stuff... the reasons that crowds dress up like their favorite Hogwarts denizen and have routinely stood in long lines at midnight each time a new book or film is to be released? I don't think you can plausibly argue that he's been good for the series on that front.

I understand that a novel can get into all sorts of detail that a movie cannot (and often should not), but for me the tragedy of David Yates is that he didn't even seem to try much of the time. His work just doesn't have that "something special" that all of the books and the earlier movies appeared to have. It's sad that they kept him on the series primarily because he was a mild personality who didn't make as much trouble as the earlier directors did. Check out this article in The Guardian where visual effects supervisor Tim Burke stops just short of outright calling Cuarón an asshole when reminiscing about the series as a whole: "He's … yeah, an interesting person. I'm being a bit cagey here. Let's just say he's challenging. High standards, and all sorts of other things."

Yates only got the job on 5 in the first place when every established, big name director they offered it to became nervous about the restrictions Warner Bros. had in place and turned it down - Terry Gilliam, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Mira Nair, M. Night Shyamalan, Tim Burton, et al. They kept Yates for part 6 when Guillermo del Toro passed on it in order to make Hellboy II. Who knows if they ever considered another director for 7 - parts 1 and 2, but one thing's for sure: The series deserved better.

FANBOY ALERT!!: Be sure to stick around after the end credits for the scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) visits Harry at Hogwarts, and gives another clue to the plot of next summer's The Avengers!

My entry on the previous movie, The Deathly Hallows - Part 1

My entry on part six, The Half-Blood Prince

My entry on part five, The Order Of The Phoenix

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