Tag: harry potter

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.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

The first out of five potential entries of “Fantastic Beasts,” written by “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling and directed by returning “Potter” filmmaker David Yates, is a respectable but unimpressive introduction into the wizarding world of 1920s America. Gone is the sense of wonder which made the “Potter” series, especially its early installments, so intriguing. Instead, we are immediately placed in the middle of a possible conflict between the magic and non-magic communities through the eyes of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British magizoologist, one who studies oft misunderstood, endangered magical creatures.

Numerous strands are introduced—all of them interesting but not one is throughly explored. As a result, we feel the machinations of the plot to the fullest extent. Notice as we move from one scene to another, usually there is a choppiness to them; one minute we are supposed to be getting inside the minds and hearts of its characters as to understand their varying motivations and the next they are running around in a desperate attempt to capture the beasts that have escaped from the twitchy researcher’s suitcase. This is not due to editing. Rather, it is in how the screenplay is structured—an approach problem: so many pieces are introduced at once instead of naturally building off one another.

Conversely, too many fantasy-adventures simply do not have enough ideas to keep their respective boats afloat, so I suppose the opposite can be considered to be less of a problem. Still, it is an issue worth noting and, more importantly, fixing in the future films because its impact is tethered to the detriment of the viewing experience. Flow between scenes is so important in order to immerse us successfully into a specific world with specific rules and band of colorful characters.

As expected, the special and visual effects are top-notch for the most part. I enjoyed small but rewarding moments where Scamander simply shows and interacts with the creatures he wishes to understand further. These beasts vary in size, texture, and personality and so each one evokes a certain feeling. Although a few creatures shown are so flashy to the point where one cannot help but notice how colorful and polished they are—and thus distracting and taking us out of the moment—Redmayne has a way of looking at them as though Newt has forged a strong bond with them. There is clearly history there and so instances where he must employ the creatures’ talents in order to get him and his friends (Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler) out of tricky situations are believable and sometimes most amusing.

The political undercurrents ought to have been written smarter, stronger, more purposeful. Specifically, the situation in New York City is so tension-filled between magic and non-magic folks that any small thing could trigger an all-out war between the two factions, especially with a highly dangerous Dark Wizard named Gellert Grindewald having recently escaped from magical authorities. Samantha Morton is underused as a No-Maj (American term for “Muggle,” a non-magic person), leader of a sinisterly-named New Salem Philanthropic Society, who uses children to achieve her personal agendas.

Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is satisfying as a visual experience—rather than of deep thoughts and emotions. Viewers who loved the “Potter” series for its sense of wonder and youthful energy are likely to feel disappointed, but the film is able to establish a convincing 1920s milieu with characters we can grow to love in the future. But now that the introduction is out of the way, here’s to hoping that the filmmakers will aspire for depth.

We Are Wizards

We Are Wizards (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

“We Are Wizards,” directed by Josh Koury, documents how a group of people’s lives have changed since J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” phenomenon rose in popularity. As a fan of the series, I thought I knew what to expect because I have seen documentaries that focus on certain subcultures. In some ways, this movie surprised me because I never knew about the brothers (Paul DeGeorge, Joe DeGeorge) who formed a garage band whose songs referred to things in the Hogwarts universe, Heather Lawver’s struggle with Warner Bros. as well as her disease, Brad Neely’s very funny comics and voice-overs and a family so embedded in rock and roll and the freedom of self-discovering something. But at the same time, it was disappointing because it never really explored any of their stories deep enough. It kept jumping from one group of people to another and it was frustrating because such jumps happened just when it was about to get interesting. Out of everyone, I wanted to know more about Lawver’s amazing story of challenging a massive company and winning–all of which happened when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. I believe her story is the heart of this documentary because it highlighted the power of the fans; the fact that without them, the “Harry Potter” franchise would not be as popular today and therefore Warner Bros. (and other companies) would not be as successful. I liked that the film also included a woman who believed that the books were brainwashing children into believing or dabbling in the occult. Although I may not agree with her at all, the director convinced me that he was not afraid to include all kinds of people in his film. There were also some nice bits about Melissa Anelli, founder of The Leaky Cauldron, how she found her career through the Potter mania and what it all meant to her. There were times when I thought the movie was about to look down on the obsessed fans but it didn’t. While it did acknowledge that some of the fans became obsessed with the books because it served as an escape, it didn’t quite go down that path. I wish it had because the more personal something gets, the more I get engaged. “We Are Wizards” is not a bad documentary but it’s not that good either. It didn’t quite have that power to make the fandom feel universal despite its (attempted) focus on various quirky individuals.

Conversations with Other Women

Conversations with Other Women (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Conversations with Other Women,” directed by Hans Canosa started off with seemingly two strangers (Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter) flirting and finding some sort of connection. Eventually, they realized that they’ve known each other in the past–ten years to be exact. What I love most about this picture was its ability to present opposites and the insights that go with them. For instance, Eckhart was more light-hearted and likes to makes jokes while Carter was more of a Debbie Downer and oozes sarcasm. The split-screen worked well because it played upon the very opposite of things, such as one screen would present the past while the other the present, one screen would present reality while the other fantasy, and then back to the characters as it captured the exact facial responses and body languages when the two would converse. I understand that a plethora of people were put off by this film because of the split-screen and the fact that the whole movie was an extended conversation between two past lovers. However, I didn’t find anything bothersome about it. In fact, the whole thing made me smile because it reminded me of great films like Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” and Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” With a short running span of one hour and twenty minutes, it was very efficient because the first half was more about the comedy and rekindling an old romance, while the second half–after the sex which was the midpoint–focused more on the circumstances on why these two people, despite their obvious chemistry, could potentially never be together. I recommend this film to anyone interested in great conversations because it made me feel like I was right there in the room with them. To be honest, I found myself laughing out loud with some of the jokes and teasing that each character threw at each other, something that happens in real life. Another reason why I was glad to have finally seen this movie was seeing Carter play a “normal” person. Whenever I see her, I usually think of her being an evil witch (“Harry Potter” series) or a woman who serves pies made of human flesh (“Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). This is a strong, quick-paced little movie and intelligent cinema lovers should not miss it.


Inkheart (2008)
★ / ★★★★

I had high expectations from this movie because the premise of it was interesting: a man named Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) who was a “Silvertongue” had the ability to bring book characters to live simply just by reading about them out loud. He did not always have such an ability (or was he aware of it) so over the years, the disparate characters from the books were taken to the human world–some of them good (Paul Bettany as the fire-wielding Dustfinger and Rafi Gavron as Farid, a sort of Aladdin-like character) and some bad (led by Andy Serkis as Capricorn). One of my biggest problems with this movie was its dialogue. It was so uninspired and it lacked a sense of wonder that movies like the “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” innately have. Since this was based on a children’s novel by Cornelia Funke, I expected it to be at least entertaining by way of enchancing the audiences’ imagination. Instead, we got this overly long exposition, chaotic action scenes that did not amount to anything, and characters that were not exactly likable or memorable. I usually love watching Helen Mirren’s elegance but I think she was completely miscast as the grandmother who loves books and the indoors more than other people and the outdoors. Her character’s attempt at humor made me feel sort of ashamed because none of them were even slightly amusing. There were many points in the film where I just felt bored and wondered about the technical things. For instance, I thought about the repercussions that would happen in the book if the characters were suddenly taken off the pages. I thought of the “exchange” that had to happen–if one was to be transported into the book, wouldn’t it make more sense if someone comparable would be taken out of the book? There were a plethora of plotholes and by the end of it, I was just tired of being disappointed. Perhaps with a better direction other than Iain Softley, the translation from novel to film would have been better. I suggest not to waste time with this one. Even the kids would be bored out of their minds.