Tag: daniel radcliffe

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Professor Albus Dumbledore: After all this time?
Professor Severus Snape: Always.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is nearly all adrenaline, jumping from one glorious action sequence to the next with grace and marvel. Here, David Yates’ direction is confident in a different way. It is clear he has a plan on how to end the series, that each important item on the checklist must be tackled with an exclamation point within two hours and ten minutes. Unlike its other half, “Part 2” is fast-paced, efficient, and filled with purpose. What results is a breathless final showdown between good and evil—between Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), The Boy Who Lived, and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), The Dark Lord.

The break-in gone wrong in Gringotts bank is a delicious early highlight. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) must get into the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), one of Voldemort’s most ardent followers, to acquire and destroy another Horcrux. Unbeknownst to the trio, defenses are in place against thieves, one of which involving a fully grown dragon trained to recoil when it hears a specific sound.

It is beautiful to watch because although spells are cast and explosions abound, details about the dragon stand out—the thickness of the shackles around its feet, the massive welts on its skin, the specific stance it takes when it is about to breathe fire. This level of detail reminded me of “Sorcerer’s Stone,” how director Chris Columbus employs the camera in order for viewers to have the opportunity to study the aura, the look, and the personality of its goblin bank teller.

“Hogwarts has changed,” according to Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) as he welcomes Harry and his friends to their school now led by Headmaster Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Prior to “Deathly Hallows,” we have seen the look of Hogwarts evolve, from golden glow optimism (“Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets”) to blue-gray dungeon-like cloister where centuries of dark secrets and knowledge reside (“Half-Blood Prince”). But never has the school looked so severe, so devoid of life, joy, and merriment. Students are forced to march in unison. No spirited chattering. Even ghosts roam the halls no longer. Hogwarts resembles a prison, plagued with Death Eaters and Dementors. Simply showing the Hogwarts as a place of oppression adds so much to the urgency of the story. We feel as though our own home has been desecrated.

Due to the hunt for the Horcruxes being front and center, there is minimal room for potentially curious strands. There are two of note. The first is the introduction of Albus Dumbledore’s brother named Aberforth (Ciarán Hinds). Not only is his vibe so different from Albus (Michael Gambon), their relationship comes across rather strained. According to Aberforth, Albus was once so hungry for power. But what of the specifics? I fear that those who have not read the novel might be lost in regard to the complexities of this familial connection.

The second is the seemingly sudden change that occurs within Narcissa Malfoy (Helen McCrory), Draco’s mother, when it comes to her allegiance to The Dark Lord. Because we have only a surface understanding of this character’s motivations, namely in “Half-Blood Prince,” her decisions impact the plot development in key ways, but her complexity as a character fails to translate. This is a mistake because I believe the screenplay by Steve Kloves wishes to draw parallels between Lily Potter and Narcissa Malfoy, what both mothers are willing to do to save their sons from corruption and doom.

On the rare instance that “Part 2” slows down, observe how compelling the film becomes. A late standout involves Harry looking into the Pensieve as Snape’s motivation behind his actions is revealed. This intimidating Potions teacher who seemed to despise Harry from the moment their eyes met in “Sorcerer’s Stone” is proven to be a tragic figure, a man who must somehow continue to live after he feels he’d lost everything he cherished. When the picture sets the war aside for a few minutes and focuses inward, it proves capable of making us think and reconsider. This is magic that cannot be summoned by CGI.

Despite a few limitations, “Part 2” remains to be terrific entertainment, a worthy closing entry to a monumental series filled with memorable personalities, curious creatures, laughter, adventures, and wonder. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels are tremendously successful because she approached her story, characters, and the audience with respect. As a whole, I feel as though the screenwriters and directors chose to follow her example. Consequently, we are gifted with an all-time great film series that I have no doubt will still be talked about a hundred years into the future.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Seems strange, mate. Dumbledore sends you off to find a load of Horcruxes, but doesn’t bother to tell you how to destroy them. Doesn’t that bother you?

Perhaps the most polarizing “Potter” feature given that it breaks away completely from the expected formula—a warm and usually amusing exposition, an exciting return to Hogwarts, mysteries that must be solved and misadventures that follow, a heartfelt closure—it is quite an achievement that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” works at all. David Yates’ confidence in telling an epic story has never been more apparent and he does so, ironically, by keeping it small most of the time. In this chapter, the focus is on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they flee and hide in the wilderness while attempting to figure out how to destroy Horcruxes, objects that contain pieces of Voldermort’s soul. As long as these Horcruxes remain intact, The Dark Lord cannot die. Two have been destroyed, one by Harry in “Chamber of Secrets” and the other by Dumbledore in “Half-Blood Prince.” The trio has Salazar Slytherin’s locket in their possession.

Those who crave in-your-face action are likely to be disappointed with this installment. Focus is on the dialogue, particularly detective work, the rhythm behind each exchange, and establishing a sinister aura. The screenplay by Steve Kloves trusts that the audience are already invested in this world and the characters who inhabit them. And so nearly every moment must connect to personal bonds, adventures, and themes established prior. Moments of levity can be counted on one hand. Even then a joke that lands or a sweet gesture proves evanescent. We get a sense that to laugh or smile during this woeful time is inappropriate. Even the look of the picture is dominated by blues and grays; the score never draws attention unto itself.

The pacing is unhurried. It languishes. The middle of the picture is a considerable challenge given that Harry and his friends are shown—more than five times (I counted)—sitting about while deep in thoughts. It is so un-cinematic at times that I would sit back in disbelief—not because the approach doesn’t work but because it is a big gamble for a mainstream blockbuster. I admired its daring, its willingness to show its witches and wizards on the verge of exhaustion, of ennui, of defeat. We understand why Ron, for instance, keeps close to his radio. He listens intently to names of folks who are reported to have gone missing. He fears for his family. He, like Harry and Hermione, is helpless. And that breeds anger, the need to place blame. The inevitable outburst between Ron and Harry here is one of the most heartbreaking in the series precisely because we know much they love one another—not simply as best friends but as brothers.

When the film gets an adrenaline boost, we cannot help but watch wide-eyed. There are two standouts: an early sequence involving Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) leading a group of Harry look-alikes (one is real, others are fake) to get The Boy Who Lived to safety and the other involving a hostage situation in the Malfoy Manor while Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is away. Just when you think the demented Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) couldn’t be any more despicable, she digs a new hole with a smirk on her face. Notice it is never about who lived or died; it is about the fight the characters exhibit and the sacrifices they’re willing to make—not for Harry or for the cause… but because it’s who they are. Yates never lets go of this understanding.

Most remarkable about “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is “The Tale of Three Brothers.” This animated sequence is narrated perfectly by Watson. Her voice is so soothing, graceful, like she’s telling us a Grimm fairytale. The animation is stunningly beautiful, particularly its use of sharp angles and shadows. Notice that although not a word is uttered by the brothers or Death, who wish to claim their lives after they outsmart him, the sequence is so alive that it leaves plenty to the imagination. Of course, this children’s tale must be connected to the titular Deathly Hallows. This sequence need not have been animated. The tale could’ve been told by one character to another: simple, straightforward, no decoration. But because it was chosen to be presented in animation, it gives the impression that the those involved in the film wish to deliver something special.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Professor McGonagall: [to Harry, Ron, and Hermione] Why is it, when something happens, it is always you three?
Ron Weasley: Believe me, Professor. I’ve been asking myself the same question for six years.

“Half-Blood Prince” is a “Potter” installment firing on all cylinders. This is immediately noticeable as expository sequences prior to our stepping inside the great walls of Hogwarts dare to show a roadmap of critical elements that define this entry, from Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) persuading an old friend, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a man who was close to Voldemort (then Tom Riddle) when he was a student, to join the faculty as a Potions professor; Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose father is now imprisoned in Azkaban due to the tragic events in “Order of the Phoenix,” being recruited as a Death Eater; to Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) agreeing to partake in an Unbreakable Vow—to break it is to die. Steve Kloves’ screenplay is so purposeful and efficient, it leaves little room to breathe. A feeling of utmost urgency results.

This is the most curious-looking Potter film. On the surface, colors are muted. Hues of grayish, pale yellow abound and so when the color red or bright purple appears, our eyes are drawn straight to it. It is not afraid to look dark, to make the audience squint. Consider Slughorn’s Potions class; it looks and feels like we are sitting in a dungeon. On top of this, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is generous in employing blur in order create an impression that we are looking into a dream or a memory. This is particularly salient when Dumbledore takes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) into one of his memories through a Pensieve. Inside the recollection is Dumbledore getting acquainted with Voldemort as a young boy.

Observe the scene carefully. It seems uncomfortable to show the old man and the orphan within the same frame, as if to communicate that these two are not meant to mix. Distance decreases between the two bodies—to a point—but we feel that what they wish to protect about themselves are in entirely different rooms. And when they do share a frame, one of them is always blurred. Why is this? It creates a sense of unease, slowly at first… then at an alarming level. The longer we bathe in the memory, there is an increasingly heavy portentous feeling. And yet—we wish for it to go on because the exchange is fascinating and ultimately revealing. What else does the Hogwarts headmaster know about the child who will become the greatest dark wizard of all time?

The picture never eases up on applying tension. “Half-Blood Prince” is especially known for its comedy—and it is very funny—because the characters we have gotten to know and love have begun to embrace and execute romantic feelings. Yes, there are plenty of awkward moments, love potions gone wrong, mismatched dates… but on the flip side are unrequited feelings, the anguish of seeing someone you really want to know on a deeper level deciding to snog someone else, and the unbearable agony of your person of interest never looking at you the way you look at him or her.

The surface is comedy but the core is a drama filled to the brim with searingly honest moments. Especially beautiful is how Hermione (Emma Watson), clearly the most mature of the trio, allows herself to be vulnerable so that Ron (Rupert Grint) might have a chance of seeing her as more than a friend—more than a convenient friend, to be precise. Having Hermione play against type is a masterstroke in this entry; we are so used to seeing her opening books instead of opening herself up for human connections. Meanwhile, Harry has his eyes on Ginny (Bonnie Wright). While this connection is also intriguing, it does not reach the heights of Hermione’s longing.

Curiosities do not stop there. What about the cabinet that Draco finds in The Room of Requirement? He puts an apple inside and closes the door. A couple of seconds pass. He then proceeds to open the door and finds that the apple had been bitten into. Next, Draco decides to put a chirping bird inside… Harry got his hands on an old Potions textbook with all sorts of scribblings, diagrams, and spells. Based on what’s written inside, it used to belong to a so-called “Half-Blood Prince.” Without the helpful tips therein, Harry would not have excelled in Slughorn’s class. So who is the Half-Blood Prince? And, more importantly, does it matter so much considering the fact that war is looming straight ahead? Speaking of Slughorn, this man has a habit of “collecting” students, those who he suspects will become great or famous one day. What is his precise connection to Tom Riddle?

David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” brings up so many questions—and answers—that it cannot be denied it is rich with content. It offers humor, excitement, suspense, genuine moments of peril, and devastating losses. It is beautiful to peer into; I wished every “Harry Potter” film looked like it. But perhaps the fact that it does not is precisely why it is special. Does it include every critical element from J.K. Rowling’s novel? No. But as a film, it works on every level. It feels and acts like a culmination of what came before while serving as a bridge to the final chapter.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

In the past it was often the Dark Lord’s pleasure to invade the minds of his victims, creating visions designed to torture them into madness. Only after extracting the last exquisite ounce of agony, only when he had them literally begging for death would he finally… kill them.

J.K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” is my favorite “Harry Potter” novel because it does an terrific job in balancing personal drama, school life, politics, and the encroaching reality that Lord Voldemort is making moves behind the scenes so he will be well-prepared for war against those whom he considers to be inferior by blood. And so it is most disappointing that the film version, this time Michael Goldenberg serving as screenwriter in place of Steve Kloves and David Yates taking on the role of director, comes across cursory, thin, tonally unfocused, and largely uninterested with the more silent but equally critical details in regard to plot and character.

One gets the impression that those at the helm are more interested in delivering spectacle than exploring human stories. Particularly offensive is the limited and unremarkable interactions between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), still on the lam for crimes he did not commit. The actors exude warmth when their eyes meet from across the room, but when these characters begin to speak with one another, conversations are often one-dimensional, dull, repetitive. This lack of connection is especially astounding because Sirius is supposed to be best friends with Harry’s father. There is not once instance in which the screenplay bothers to take the time so that the godfather could recall a cherished memory that involves James and Lily. It shouldn’t have been this way because Harry considers the man as family. By comparison, Harry’s exchanges with Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” however brief, are far richer and emotionally satisfying.

More energy and attention is given to montages: how Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, manages to take over Hogwarts and impose all sorts of preposterous rules to create an illusion of order (so-called “educational decrees” like banning extracurricular clubs or requiring boys and girls to be at least eight inches apart at all times), how Harry forms and trains his fellow students (“Dumbledore’s Army”) so they can defend themselves against those who wish them harm, how Harry’s mind becomes increasingly vulnerable for Voldemort to take advantage of. These are critical to the plot, amusing and curious at times, but they are not executed with insight or flavor.

We are supposed to despise the fascistic, pink-wearing, cat-loving Umbridge but what else is there to the character? Surely someone who wishes to be hold on to control so desperately must have some sort of backstory. What does it mean for Harry to lead his friends? How does this leadership position connect to his feelings of isolation? Does this trigger a change in him? How are the O.W.L. exams (“Ordinary Wizarding Level”) relevant to Harry’s dream of becoming an Auror? What is an Auror? (Harry’s career goal is referenced in the next film “Half-Blood Prince” as it if were brought up in this entry. It wasn’t… curious because the fifth year is when students are forced to think about life after Hogwarts.)

And what about Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) who is revealed early on to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix (a group that Dumbledore formed to stand up against Voldemort and his Death Eaters)? Sure, the point is for Harry to be trained so he can learn to defend against those who wish to access his thoughts and feelings, but what about the human aspect—the fact that Harry had never really considered Snape to be an ally and yet now they must work together? Where is the drama that we can bite into? Clearly, we are provided a vanilla Cliff Notes version.

By the time the third act fumbles about, when Harry and his friends decide to venture into the Ministry of Magic’s Department of Mysteries (which apparently is not only easy to find, it takes no effort to break into), it is too late to salvage the picture. On the basis of visuals, I suppose the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort is impressive. But these figures have been absent from the picture for the majority of its running time so the emotional investment isn’t very high.

If anything, it is a reminder of how boring the students have been using magic. Why aren’t they learning how to summon giant fire serpents or control massive volume of water? Jest aside, I appreciated that this scene shows why Voldemort fears Dumbledore. This fact was referenced since “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Here is the payoff. Had the screenplay bothered to answer more questions that begin with “why” or “how,” it would have given the work deeper substance.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’m going to kill you, Harry Potter. I’m going to destroy you. After tonight, no one will ever again question my power. After tonight if they speak of you, they’ll only speak of how you begged for death. And how I being a merciful Lord… obliged.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” may not be the most focused narratively nor is it the most ingenious when it comes to presentation of storytelling, especially coming at the heels of Alfonso Cuarón’s visual phantasmagoria that is “Prisoner of Azkaban,” but a point can be made it is a standout in the series nonetheless. It is the awkward middle child: Out of sheer willingness to be embrace everything at once—excitement, danger, personal drama, and fun are shoulder-to-shoulder in the same scene quite often—it manages to hit enough high notes to create solid entertainment. There is plenty to tackle in this installment, the second longest “Potter” novel by J.K. Rowling, but director Mike Newell ensures we look forward to the next development up until the body of Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is restored.

The first act is a breath of fresh air because it breaks the wizarding world wide open. What better way to do so than to have Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends attend a massive sport event, the 422nd Quidditch World Cup. We learn there are schools outside of Hogwarts. This is important, but at the same time it comes across as a footnote because we learn, too, that Voldermort’s followers called the Death Eaters are the move, desperate to turn things back to the way they were thirteen years ago. In prior films, stirrings of trouble are alluded to or mentioned outright by worried-looking adults, particularly Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and an official from the Ministry of Magic (Robert Hardy). But this is the first entry that really hones in on the evil that is The Dark Lord and his minions, how their mission of hate lives in the very fiber of their being.

The fun aspect of the picture comes in the form of the Triwizard Tournament, Hogwarts serving as host for the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, led by Madame Olympe Maxime (Frances de la Tour), a giant who wins the affections of our lovable half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the Durmstrang Institute for Magical Leaning, led by Igor Karkaroff (Predrag Bjelac), a former Death Eater. According to tournament rules, one student from each school will be chosen by the Goblet of Fire to compete in a series of increasingly dangerous tasks. Word has it that a few students who participated in the past have perished. Gambling young lives for a taste of glory.

Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) is chosen to represent Beauxbatons, Viktor Krum (Stanislav Yanevski) for Durmstrang, and Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) for Hogwarts. I wished the screenplay by Steve Kloves had spent some time with each champion. No need for extensive dialogue. By showing us their mettle in the field, it would have given us a chance to understand why they were chosen instead of simply accepting them because the script demands it.

The perfect opportunity would have been the first task where they are required to deal with fully grown dragons. Instead, we are stuck with Harry inside the tent—he is the fourth champion chosen by the Goblet (surprise, surprise)—as he waits for his turn to prove himself worthy, not a dirty cheat like most of his classmates have assumed. (Due to the nature of the tournament and rumors of Voldemort’s ascension, those under seventeen years of age are not allowed to submit their names for consideration. Harry is fourteen.)

And then there is the Yule Ball. In a series of laugh-of-loud situations, from Ron (Rupert Grint) lamenting over the ridiculous dress robe that his mother sent over (laces, ostentatious collars and all) to the stresses and various humiliations boys undergo to ask girls who may or may no longer be available for a silly event, never has the Potter universe been so grounded and relatable. I loved that in these scenes, no one is using magic. The teens are left to their own devices. Insecurity becomes a part of their ensemble. There are even genuinely sad but human moments like when Ron, who is obviously jealous, decides to make Hermione (Emma Watson) feel guilty for having a good time at the ball with a date who is someone worthy of writing home about. Sometimes friendships can be unfair. But it’s all part of the package.

As expected, the adult performers shine. I guffawed at Miranda Richardson’s Rita Skeeter, reporter for The Daily Prophet, how her scandalous line of questioning creates paths for non-stories to become full-fledged gossip. Brendan Gleeson’s Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, is formidable. His classroom scene involving the three Unforgivable Curses—Cruciatus Curse, Imperius Curse, Killing Curse—is first-class due to the nature of how these curses are demonstrated. And then there is David Tennant as Barty Crouch Junior, so snake-like in his movement and being that his tongue flicks between lines of dialogue. Ingeniously, the tongue works as foreshadowing, too.

Out of the eight “Harry Potter” films, “Goblet of Fire” is the most accessible. It is neither too light nor too dark, neither inconsequential nor too heavy on mythology. It shows a strong affection for teenagers despite their sudden hormonal fluctuations. And it marks the first time when best friends Harry, Ron, and Hermione find themselves not being on the greatest terms. They may consider themselves as a team, but they are also individuals. Had this human drama been amplified then delved into further, this film could have been the definitive Potter experience.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.

From its pre-title sequence, where we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the bedsheets, it is established that “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third entry in J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, will offer a wholly different vibe. Gone is the yellow, innocent glow that surrounds the halls of Hogwarts designed to embrace those from the outside looking in. Grayish blue hues are now in its place. Gone is the inviting, child-like score teasing mystery and wonderment. Instead, the music is foreboding, even capable of getting under the skin at times. Gone, too, are so-called extraneous sequences where we simply learn about minute curiosities within the world of witchcraft and wizardry, like strange artifacts and bizarre organisms that may not have anything to do with the big picture. Here, every scene must contribute to the overall narrative.

It cannot be denied it is a more mature work, certainly a step forward in terms of plot, visuals, and characterizations. In a way, it must exhibit noticeable growth—no matter how awkward—given that Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have entered their teenage years. In the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón, with Chris Columbus now serving as producer (“Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets”), the film proves capable of delivering great entertainment. It balances fantasy, thrills, horror, and human drama so readily and so astutely that it is difficult to predict what is in store when a new day begins for the wizards-in-training.

I admired its courage for not running away from more adult-oriented themes. The death, no, the murder of Harry’s parents, James and Lily, are brought up more than thrice. In each instance, the screenplay by Steve Kloves is knowing enough to slow down and really hone in on how their deaths have impacted Harry as a young man. For example, even though he considers Hogwarts to be his home and he has terrific friends, those bright blue eyes communicate a deep loneliness. Harry longs to be loved and to be wanted by his kin, his blood. And so when Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, recalls his own memories of James and Lily, we feel Harry’s yearning to learn more from the man. Through Lupin’s recollections, Harry feels James and Lily are alive—even for just a moment. Take note of Cuarón’s affinity in employing close-ups, occasionally to the point where it feels uncomfortable. And it should. A case can be made that “Azkaban” is a coming-of-age tale.

Another highlight is the first time Hermione and Ron see their best friend cry during a trip to Hogsmeade, a village right next to Hogwarts. I loved that human emotions are not treated with the slightest whiff of embarrassment. When Harry is emotional, we feel Hermione and Ron wanting to understand even though deep down they know they won’t be able to completely given that they are not orphans. In fact, they come from good, loving families. They do not know how it is like to be treated like dirt, to be abused verbally and physically, by their flesh and blood. But they try anyway. And so that effort earns our respect—outside of books, outside of magic, outside of exercising loyalty. Ron and Hermione may not have defined subplots in this installment, but their actions are often highly informative and telling.

Threat comes in the form Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the first convict to have escaped the notorious Azkaban prison. It is said he is a murderer, and he wishes to find Harry then kill him. Funnily enough, this is the least compelling aspect of the story since there are far too many obvious red herrings. I suspect Cuarón feels this way, too. His solution is to flood the central plot with empathetic moments, as mentioned above, and terrific personalities. Notice that adults—Snape (Alan Rickman), Lupin, Black, Trelawney (Emma Thomoson), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon in place of Richard Harris due to his death)—are given more time to speak and interact. Their collective experience elevates the material, that it is not just a children’s story anymore.

There is not a trace of Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” yet it is first-rate entertainment. In fact, there is no villain here—at least, not really. The point, quite simply, is to discover the truth. As proven here, defogging secrets and lies can be more compelling than battling a man with two faces or squaring off against a giant basilisk. Despite the flood of fantastic elements, Cuarón’s fascination with humanity fluoresces, consistently on the foreground.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid.

Who better to play a flamboyant, narcissistic, and arrogant newly appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart than Sir Kenneth Branagh, a natural scene-stealer and a provider of bright patches in this noticeably darker sequel, one that deals with classism and racism (even enslavement!) but in a way that is still kid-friendly and entertaining? Branagh is not in the picture for long, but the performer proves to be more than capable of making a lasting impression. And although Lockhart may be a snake oil salesman, there is another type of snake in this chapter, one I consider to be enjoyable as a whole but plagued with missed opportunities.

Unlike the predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” directed by Chris Columbus, is more entrenched in its mystery. Notice immediately how plot-driven it is. Once blood is written on Hogwarts’ walls and petrified bodies pile up, Steve Klove’s screenplay launches into an investigatory mode. Nearly every conversation among Harry, Ron, and Hermione is a step toward the discovery of the Chamber of Secrets’ location. It gives the impression that the film is not so much interested in supplying wonderment; it assumes that those who signed up for the follow-up are already invested in the Harry Potter universe. This is a double-edged sword: It is the correct evolutionary step for the franchise but it sheds some of its warm appeal.

I enjoyed this approach, I think. It may not be as inviting as “Sorcerer’s Stone,” but it is more efficient from a storytelling perspective. There is no need to reintroduce, for instance, what goes on inside the Hogwarts Express while students are on their way to start another school year. First-years being sorted into their respective houses—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin—is skipped altogether. (We do, however, learn a bit of background regarding the house’s founders later on, courtesy of Professor McGonagall [Maggie Smith].) I found the movie’s willingness to not repeat itself to be admirable. Even the Dursleys’ bullying, Harry’s adopted family (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Harry Melling), is not as awful this time around. Perhaps it is because a part of them now fears Harry’s sharpened abilities.

Harry and Gilderoy are obvious foils. Harry could have used his fame as The Boy Who Lived to be as ostentatious and ridiculous as Gilderoy but didn’t. In fact, Gilderoy has a habit of grabbing Harry and using the twelve-year-old as a prop to gain even more fame and admirers. (Not to mention book sales.) Gilderoy’s idea of detention is allowing our hero to answer fan mail. Harry is humble with his adventures and triumphs while Gilderoy is an expert in employing smoke and mirrors. This amusing relationship could have been a powerful thesis of this installment. There is a theme regarding seeing but failing to look directly into the eyes. Had the screenplay honed in on the core of these wealth of ideas, “Chamber of Secrets” would have worked on another level.

Still, what’s at offer remains highly watchable, from the duel between the even-tempered Harry and the petulant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to Harry writing on a mysterious diary which possesses the power not only to answer back but also to transport its owner into specific times in the past. Perhaps most memorable is a trip to the Dark Forest where a giant spider named Aragog resides. Ron and Harry attempting to escape from an ocean of goat-sized spiders is stuff of nightmares. At the same time, these spiders possess a beauty, too. I wanted to take a magnifying glass and examine the hairs on their bodies. Or perhaps to stare into their many eyes. Spiders are such misunderstood creatures. I’m with Hagrid on this one.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

You’re a wizard, Harry.

Nearly every moment of Chris Columbus’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on the novel by J.K. Rowling and adapted to the screen by Steve Kloves, is an invitation—an invitation to smile at its optimism and wholesomeness; to hold your breath in anticipation whether it be during a Quidditch match between the rivaling Gryffindor and Slytherin houses or a night stroll in the forbidden Dark Forest where a foul creature feasts on unicorn blood; to marvel at the sheer size of ancient castles or the most minute details inside moving paintings; to wonder at the secrets yet to be discovered within its world of witchcraft and wizardry.

Although a case can be made that the picture is overlong, it is a terrific opening chapter precisely because it goes out of its way to present details that escape run-of-the-mill fantasy-adventures. Consider a trip to Gringotts, a bank run by goblins, after half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) whisks eleven-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) away from his abusive, non-magic (“Muggles”) adoptive parents (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths) and spoiled cousin (Harry Melling).

The film not only takes its time for viewers to appreciate the sheer majesty of the place, from its high ceilings and crystal chandeliers to its scintillating floor and towering marble pillars, the camera readily functions as a microscope. Notice the way it fixates on the bank teller, who is a goblin, the sharpness that can be found deep in its spectacled eyes when disturbed from its work, its short-tempered predisposition when spoken to. We are invited to stare at its rubbery skin, how its mitten-like hands are almost as big as the goblin’s face. We wonder about its age, perhaps even what it eats for nourishment. Do they have their own language?

It goes on like this. A curious creature or object, like an invisibility cloak or a state-of-the-art broom, is introduced and the filmmakers ensure we are in the middle of the action with rapt attention. It is never enough to show or mention a curiosity. It must be demonstrated. Then it must be applied when Harry and his friends go on to investigate the mystery surrounding the possibility of Voldermort’s return, the notorious dark wizard who murdered Harry’s parents and the one responsible for the lightning bolt-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead.

Because every scene invokes the feeling of opening a Christmas present, we are motivated to look forward to small and big surprises as a new day begins in Hogwarts, a school for young witches and wizards led by the warm and calming Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris). The picture may be episodic and, yes, even drawn out at times. But it is never boring or repetitive. I admired it precisely because it is untethered from the usual parabola and pacing of dramatic storytelling. It adopts its own rhythm.

This joyous quality of the picture is not strictly limited to visuals. The dialogue possesses a cheekiness to it, a palpable personality, whether Harry is hanging out on a train (“Hogwarts Express”) or in the Gryffindor common room with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) or Harry being humiliated in front of his peers by Potions professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman—spot-on casting) for his excessive fame but embarrassing lack of knowledge. Every character is provided a specific voice and being. Even when they are not in the scene, sometimes we wonder why they are the way they are.

It is amazing that although supporting characters like Professors Snape, Quirrel (Ian Hart) and McGonagall (Maggie Smith) have fewer than twenty lines of dialogue to work with, they are memorable. These consummate performers milk not only every line but every moment. A pause between words or a pointed look communicates paragraphs. And although there are a wealth of personalities in Hogwarts, all of them feel like they belong. This is the result of a screenplay wise enough to take its time so that the setting is completely realized.

A hundred years from now, children and adults alike will watch “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and derive great entertainment from it. Its CGI may have aged (for instance, the mountain troll attempting to knock off Harry from its shoulders is laughable now), but not its colorful personalities, creative ideas, and careful attention to detail. Even the score by John Williams is transportive, readily able to metamorphose from thrills and excitement to lamentation and longing a drop of a Sorting Hat.

Beast of Burden

Beast of Burden (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It has been said that the best way for a filmmaker to criticize a movie is to make one’s own, but the would-be thriller “Beast of Burden,” written by Adam Hoelzel and Jesper Ganslandt, is a failure compared to the far more impressive “Locke,” as both pictures mostly take place inside a particular mode of transport—a small plane in this instance—as the expressive lead is required to tell a seemingly straightforward story using only his rawest acting abilities. While Daniel Radcliffe does what he can with the role, there is no script to work with here.

Sean (Radcliffe) is tasked to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. Unbeknownst to his employers, Sean is also working with the DEA to take down the drug cartel. While the setup is familiar to action-thrillers and may excite some, the execution is botched beyond repair. For more than half the film, Sean simply retrieves phone calls as if he were a telemarketer stuck in a backdrop of an action-thriller. It is boring, repetitive, and commands no tension whatsoever. In the middle of it all, I wondered if better material might have been made had the premise were scrapped altogether and instead I were watching a documentary, a day in the life of a top-ranked telemarketer in which he or she must persuade the person on the other line to buy products they likely won’t need. At least in this scenario, the situation and the voices behind the phones would be real, not some unconvincing fabrication.

Flashbacks are employed and they are designed to elucidate Sean’s situation, particularly how desperate he became to agree on taking the job in the first place. However, these instances that are meant to shed light end up confusing the viewer. The reason is because these flashbacks offer no context, let alone details and specificity, on top of not lasting very long. How can we make assumptions and therefore form our own conclusions when we are not given time to absorb whatever is supposedly going on? Eventually, attempting to put the pieces together feels like a colossal waste of time, that the joke is on us for even attempting.

Radcliffe is a capable actor, equipped with many interesting techniques to create convincing characters. I admire that he takes on numerous and varied roles, even willing to push himself physically to deliver exciting performances. However, this film reveals that he cannot rely on charm alone to carry a film. He disappears completely in the role—and not in a good way, particularly during moments in which he appears to be ad-libbing in order to communicate the great distress his character undergoes. Because the screenplay offers nothing to back him up, not once do we forget that we are watching an actor act.

The photography is most unappealing. I would even go as far to say that it is downright ugly. The story takes place at night and so everything is awash in shadows and darkness. But there is a lack of artistry in how the film is shot. The small space that Radcliffe sits in, for example, looks like a cramped booth in a cheap studio. Not one of the buttons on the plane looks real or even functional. And, finally, when the character makes it out of the plane during the final act, we are supposed to be in Mexico but it looks like the setting is some random swamp in the middle of nowhere.


Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on a true story survived by Yossi Ghinsberg’s harrowing ordeal in the Amazon rainforest in 1981, “Jungle” is a highly watchable picture, filled to the brim with horror, beauty, and curiosities that come with adventure. Although occasionally hindered by dramatic techniques, such as the utilization of repetitive hallucinations and sudden flashbacks, which lessen the raw power of being stuck in a life-threatening and increasingly impossible situation, the escalating tension and solid acting overcome its limitations.

Greg McLean directs the picture with an understanding of similar films from the 1970s in which the jungle is itself a character but not one that is meant to be conquered or comprehend. It is the correct decision to preserve its mystique. However, the filmmaker ensures that we are confronted by the place by focusing on its beauty, at least initially, and then shoving us suddenly so that are face-to-face with its many threats. The nature of the material forces the viewer to wonder if one could survive in the wilderness for weeks.

The picture is shot beautifully, particularly the wide shots of small villages where residents are shown simply going about their day. I enjoyed how the pacing takes its time so that the viewers can have an appreciation of a place. For example, we spend a good amount of time in the market where tourists frequent. As a result, we get to learn a bit about the relationships with locals and foreigners; what visitors choose to see, or do, or photograph; the wide selections of street foods; the wonderful cacophony of business as usual. It is teeming with life, so colorful that one can almost taste the various spices in the air, so the setting is most inviting. This serves a great contrast against the horrors about to unfold in the Amazon jungle.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the tourist Yossi, a young man whose parents expected him to attend university but instead deciding to take a year off to travel and experience what the world has to offer. Credit goes to casting director Ben Parkinson for selecting a character actor for the role. Because in order for the ordeal to be convincing, the performer must deliver a gamut of thoughts and emotions both during scenes of desolation and desperation as well as in how he connects with those he meets along the way (Alex Russell, Joel Jackson), kindred spirits who yearn for adventure outside of the familiar. A performer who always commits to his roles, I was surprised to have seen another side of Radcliffe’s craft that I have not seen before. It makes me want to see him partake in more physically demanding roles.

The picture might have been stronger had screenwriter Justin Monjo found a way to communicate Yossi’s psychological breakdown outside of the standard moments of delirium. Perhaps a fresher route is to have focused solely on behavior. We do not need to see inside person’s mind when his actions clearly exhibit a level of increasing irrationality. An argument can be made that focusing on behavior is more terrifying because it leaves the remaining factors to the imagination. The heart of most survival pictures, after all, is horror.


Horns (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to grief, anger, and alcohol, Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) manages to destroy the memorial of his recently deceased girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). The next morning, he wakes up with a throbbing pain on his forehead—two horns have begun to grow and there does not appear to be a way of removing them. But the horns come with an ability. They allow people nearby to disclose their most inner thoughts and secrets which is useful considering Ig wishes to find out who killed Merrin.

Based on the novel by Joe Hill and screenplay by Keith Bunin, “Horns” leads with an interesting concept but it fails to truly deliver when it comes to its core mystery. I found the identity of the killer to be far too easy to predict. Within the first twenty minutes I had a guess about who it might be and I was right. Thus, the film becomes a waiting game and I was amused by the main character running around and asking the wrong questions.

Part of the problem is that the supporting characters fail to move beyond caricatures. Because they do not come across as real people reacting to real events, categorizing them and making conjectures about their motivations is not at all a challenge. There is only one supporting character that is somewhat able to move outside the box. Dale, Merrin’s father, is nicely played by David Morse and his dramatic scenes more or less work because of sheer performance. I wished we had gotten a chance to know more about Dale and less about Ig’s childhood friends (Joe Anderson, Max Minghella, Kelli Garner, Michael Adamthwaite) even though they are absolutely necessary to the plot.

The picture tends to go overboard with its special and visual effects. Computer graphic snakes look fake and laughable at times while Ig’s transformation is too literal. Fantasy elements that work effectively are less hyperbolic and non-visual. For instance, we are provided a couple of scenes involving strangers who cannot help but reveal their hidden shames and wishes. These are the highlight of the film because they are comedic but horrible and so we hope to hear more.

It has a running time of two hours for no good reason. The revelations are anticlimactic and require a suspension of disbelief which is difficult if we have not grown to love or care about the characters getting hurt or ending up dead. Thus, there is a flatness during the third act. Just when one thinks the movie is over, it keeps going and becomes more unbelievable.

“Horns,” directed by Alexandre Aja, has got its visuals pat but there is very little characterization and feeling. Its premise captures the attention and perhaps the way to maintain it is for the material to be taken to extremes—make it scary or suspenseful from time to time then suddenly turning certain situations really funny but in a twisted or sick way. Ig’s so-called detective work is dull.

Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Victor Frankenstein,” written by Max Landis and directed by Paul McGuigan, is only a marginally interesting reimagining of Mary Shelley’s classic novel because it largely suffers from an identity crisis. Although the story’s core in this particular interpretation is the partnership forged between a scientist and his assistant, numerous subplots are introduced eventually in which the details provided are not as interesting. As a result, when a subplot is front and center, the material’s pacing slows suddenly and we grow tired of having to wait for Dr. Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) to continue with their most macabre but fascinating experiment.

The look and feel of the picture is highly attractive. From the costumes worn by various men and women from disparate social classes outside to curious jars housing strange specimens inside the laboratory, there is always something worthy of appreciation. During the film’s less effective scenes, such as Igor’s rendezvous with a love interest, one wonders at the possibility of a straight-faced period film and how that style might translate in a story that involves bringing the dead back to life.

How Dr. Frankenstein and Igor’s partnership evolves over the time is worth examination partly because McAvoy and Radcliffe approach the material with a level of seriousness and urgency. One gets the impression that they enjoy their roles through their level of commitment, especially during confrontations where the two characters who love science must argue their ideals. Particularly note-worthy is how McAvoy portrays a scientist who is really, really into his work and a scientist who has possibly gone mad. The difference is slight but important. A lesser performer could have easily given a one-note performance.

A subplot that works—to an extent—involves an inspector (Andrew Scott) and his partner (Callum Turner), on the heels of the scientist and his assistant’s big secret. One of the best scenes involves Inspector Turpin’s visit to Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the former highly observant and patient while the latter tries to keep a lid on the collection of body parts in the next room. The picture might have been more elegant and exciting if the screenplay had provided more opportunity for the cat-and-mouse game to evolve and flourish.

The final act is a near-disaster because special and visual effects take over—a common mistake that is easily made simply because there is budget for it. The beauty of the material is the sensitive portrayal of the “hunchback” and the man who rescued him from the circus. It is something new, an angle we have not seen from prior “Frankenstein” films. It is a colossal mistake, certainly an act of sabotage, to sweep such a unique element to the sidelines and embrace a more digestible—and predictable—way of wrapping up the story.

What If

What If (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a medical school dropout, and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator, meet at a party and sparks fly between them almost immediately. The problem: Wallace is still trying to get over a breakup while Chantry has a boyfriend of five years (Rafe Spall). Recognizing that it is difficult to find another person that one whom can connect with almost on an instinctual level, Wallace and Chantry decide to be friends. The more they spend time together, however, it becomes clearer that maybe they ought to take their relationship on another level.

Directed by Michael Dowse and based on a screenplay by Elan Mastai, “What If” is an overlong, too-twee-for-its-own-good romantic comedy that goes nowhere fast. Despite solid performances by Radcliffe and Kazan, not even their effortless charm can perform miracles on a sinking ship. The ship could not sink any faster so that the torturous experience could finally be over.

The soundtrack is overbearing in that it gets in the way of real emotions. Instead of employing silence from time to time in order to highlight realizations and sudden turn of events, cutesy folk music is used to make us feel warm and cuddly. I did not buy a second of it. The material is supposed to be inspired by Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally…” but other than the question of whether or not the opposite sex can truly remain just friends, this movie is like that romantic comedy classic if its brain and subtleties were taken out.

The supporting characters are either malnourished in terms of development or supremely unlikeable, from Ellie—Wallace’s sister who happens to be a single mom—to Dalia—Chantry’s sister, a typical blonde bimbo who talks like her IQ is in the single digits. Because the supporting players come across fake, the world that Chantry and Wallace inhabit neither feels real nor does it offer anything substantial or interest. They exist for the sake of having color commentaries, bland dividers from one scene to the next.

I hated how Chantry and Ben’s relationship is handled. They are supposed to be living together for five years, but not once do we feel that they were once happy or they are happy but are currently going through a rough patch. A litmus test when it comes to characters who are supposed to have known each other for so long is whether the audience can imagine how their past must have been like. Here, we do not get that opportunity. It is all about what is in front of them—Chantry and her increasing feelings for Wallace and then Ben trying to advance his career. Their life together is one-dimensional.

“What If” is based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. One has to wonder whether the play is adapted properly to the screen. What the picture lacks is a sense of real intimacy between people who are afraid to cross certain lines. Instead of trying to be cute, it should have attempted to be honest. Because honesty does not result from cuteness but cuteness can result from honesty.

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), future pioneer for what is now known as the Beat Generation, gets an acceptance letter from Columbia University and is ecstatic because it means he is one step closer toward becoming a writer. But actually being on campus and attending classes, he quickly discovers he doesn’t quite belong. This changes when he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a writer who engages and challenges Allen, commanding such a live wire and charismatic personality that sometimes the two end up being in trouble with the authorities. Meanwhile, a man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Lucien’s older male lover, becomes increasingly jealous.

“Kill Your Darlings” is not a straightforward picture. At times it works because we get the impression that we are simply dropping into a specific period of time where future literary icons converge. And yet at times the approach is ineffective because certain subplots that deserve to be explored in order to truly highlight trends and themes are pushed to the side. Despite its limitations, the film demands a recommendation for its good performances.

The relationship between Ginsberg and Carr lies in the center and so Radcliffe and DeHaan must take control of every scene when it is only the two of them interacting. The actors do so beautifully, consistently letting go of what is safe or predictable. Since they often make fresh choices on how to express specific emotions, a level of danger and mystique inspires us to keep watching and ask questions in terms of where the friendship is heading—a romantic route, one that is solely platonic, or something more destructive. Sometimes it appears to be embody all three and that is exciting.

I enjoyed it on another level because I had a chance to measure who is the better actor. In a lot of movies, I can watch a scene and about ten seconds in, I can point at the person who is delivering stronger work. Here, it is a bit of a challenge. I had the pleasure to observe and really think about why the actor decided to choose a certain avenue over another. Sometimes it is about a partnership, too. One might think Radcliffe is the stronger performer and another might say DeHaan is the standout. But one thing is certain: Radcliffe and DeHaan not only have natural chemistry together but they continually work on it.

The best scenes involve Ginsberg and Carr knowing exactly what the other is trying to say without being direct about what they really want or feel. In my eyes, Radcliffe is a level above DeHaan in terms of performance because I felt he is less self-conscious or more relaxed in terms of line delivery, where to put his body, when to turn on the intensity in the eyes, when to remain still—and how to remain still—in order to hold a shot. Clearly, he knows exactly what he is doing. Prior to this picture, I was already convinced Radcliffe is a good actor. But I must say that his work here made me look forward to how else he can improve over the rest of his career.

Subplots that fail to reach completion include: Ginsberg’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being hospitalized and how that has changed or impacted Ginsberg’s experiences in Columbia as well as its role in Ginsberg’s evolution as a writer; a lack of a solid background about Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster)—I was not convinced that someone who had not heard of their names would have any idea why they were important or how good of a writer they were; and a dearth of elementary information with respect to the relationship between Carr and Kammerer. The third is most problematic because the final third of the film attempts to deal with complexity and yet there are no tracks available for us to follow.

Due to its lack of depth, there are sections in “Kill Your Darlings,” written by Austin Bunn and John Krokidas, directed by the latter, where discerning viewers are bound to think that it might have been a better movie if it had been three hours long. In a way, it is most fortunate because the casting directors chose smart in selecting its lead actors.