Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter is Dead

The Harry Potter series is dead. Oh, don't get me wrong, its still alive and kicking when it comes to new films and box office grosses. However, as far as the story and characers go, the series breathed its final breathe with The Goblet of Fire. You may hate what I have said or perhaps there is that odd person out there like me who has not grown increasingly interested in the Harry Potter series as they have developed, but instead have grown increasingly frustrated with not only the movies themselves, but the massive success they have attained as well. What started out as an amusing children's adventure is now at part 6 of an epic 7 part (but 8 films) series, and has become a dark and mysterious action-adventure film for teens and adults. Don't worry; I'm not going to argue that the film will corrupt young viewers or even scare them as the films have gotten darker. No, I just think that the Harry Potter series of films is the single most overrated film series of all-time...and that it is dead too.

Saying that the series is overrated is not to say that it isn't good, or that it isn't even excellent at times. You have to consider this though, each Harry Potter film has earned 77% or higher in all of its Rotten Tomatoes ratings while the first two films both received four stars from Roger Ebert. Top that with financial success that will make the Harry Potter series one the most profitable series of all-time. With all this critical and popular success consistently over a decade and six films, one would think that these were films with little to no faults. So before jumping into the faults, let me begin with a few kind words for the series.

The Harry Potter series is incredibly imagined and creative. The Potter universe feels fresh and new and original. It's filled with great and interesting characters that populate both beautiful and horrific locations. To bring all this to life is incredible technical work. Each film is a wonder of set design, cinematography, and film score. Each film also offers up some decent dramatic moments as well. I say all this so that you may know that I don't see them as all bad, just incredibly overrated...and dead...and here is why.

The Harry Potter series is first and foremost a fantasy story. It's a story about the young boy who survived an attack by the evil Lord Voldemort. The boy grows up, goes to Wizarding School and must mature and grow in order to ultimately defeat Lord Voldemort. There is nothing wrong with a simple narrative (as the Harry Potter one ultimately is), but stretching out that simple narrative into 8 films (all of which top 2 hours or will top 2 hours) is a stretch even for a Lord of the Rings fan.

Since each of the films follows the basic structure of one year's time at Hogwarts, there is a necessity to develop a central conflict and resolution for each of the entries. With that conflict should come true character development and progression. Unfortunately, those requirements prove too much for the simple narrative of Harry Potter for several reasons. Harry Potter, being the main character, is central to the main conflict and resolution of each film. At each conflict Harry musters the strength and courage to overcome it, whether it be two-headed professors, a giant snake, dementors, or even Lord Voldemort himself. The problem with letting Harry triumph in all these conflicts is that his character develops in each film, only to be brought to square one again for the next film.

By the end of the first two films Harry has already gathered the strength and courage to do extraordinary things that would make any youngster confident of his abilities and place in the magical world. Yet, we are to believe that for films three and four that he is still trying to overcome some of the basic doubts about his specialness and his past. So when he faces the dementor's in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry must again summon the strength to overcome his past and his insecurities. Having faced them and defeated the dementors, we find a Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire who still isn't sure about his abilities and must again summon the strength to overcome his past and his insecurities. Harry then duels Voldemort to a draw (keep in mind that the film is now basically saying Harry is the magical equal of Voldemort), but we still find Harry Potter unsure about his future role and his past in The Order of the Phoenix.

In order for film series to really truly work the characters have to progress and grow in new ways with each film and not in the same ways. Thus to me, Potter is rendered dramatically neutral. By The Goblet of Fire, Potter has stood up to Voldemort and literally dueled him to a standoff. How can a film series whose CENTRAL conflict in the whole narrative that Potter face and defeat Voldemort, tell its audience that our character is the equal of the villain and then feature the faceoff by film 4?! Then make its audience wait till film 8 (about 9 hours in screen time) till they have the final face off (they face off again in The Order of the Phoenix only to stalemate). Who cares when I know that Harry isn't weaker or in danger?

Unfortunately, with each film, all the characters are dramatically neutered and thus basically dead. By The Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore hasn't anything to offer Harry as a mentor. In fact, Dumbledore is aggresive, makes mistakes, is confused, and is slipping memories out of his mind to get some rest like an alcoholic yearns for the bottle to forget the past. Voldemort who is only spoken of really in the first three films finally gets human form in The Goblet of Fire only to be neutered of his power by having Potter duel him to a standoff. Draco Malfoy has recieved his comeuppance so many times in all the films that his character and his egging and subsequent embarrassment is nothing but a trite cliche.

The most embarrassingly neutered character is that of Sirius Black. Besides a few kind words of encouragement to Potter, what effect does he really have on the story? He shows up in Prisoner of Azkaban (as someone they build up to be an evil menace) basically for exposition, then he gets one minute of screen time in The Goblet of Fire and then dies with barely a mention in The Order of the Phoenix, Leaving little to no impact on the central narrative. Severus Snape and Professor McGonagil do so little in each film that they are basically 'biding time' for us to wait until the writers want to kill them. Ron and Hermione are clearly just there for support to Harry. The films make clear that their personal growth matter nothing to the central narrative outside of some interesting teen romance. I can honestly say that there isn't a single character arc of any of the characters that has ermeged past The Goblet of Fire that has truly remained unresolved. This might be fine for a T.V. miniseries but it doesn't work with a film series.

Let me be quick with my other gripes of the series. The Harry Potter universe plays fast and loose with the magical abilities. For example, in The Sorcerer's Stone Harry is able to make a glass case disappear as well as talk to a snake just by thinking it in his mind. Yet later he can't accomplish anything like that even with a wand, and in The Chamber of Secrets Harry discovers for the first time he can speak to a snake (albeit this time in a snake language). This may seem like a simple gripe, but it all begins to add up after six films. Here are a few others:
- In The Prisoner of Azkaban there is a magic time machine necklace that helps our three heroes out, but no other character (good or bad) is ever able to get there hands on it again. How handy would that be in the hands of Voldemort!
- Being able to slip memories out of your mind like in The Goblet of Fire would sure come in handy in court, like when Harry is in court during The Order of the Phoenix. Talk about video evidence!
- In Goblet of Fire there are portkeys that allow instant access to different places just by touching it. This is never seen in any other film even though it would be advantageous to any character good or bad. Why use trains or brooms or the late night bus, when a portkey can zip you there?

There are several more, but you get the basic idea. It begins to feel like things are being made up and developed on the spot simply to fit whatever the writers want. Forests filled with centaurs or spiders, three headed dogs, hippogriffs, goblins, house elfs, and phoenixes all show up when needed in the script but never seem to really 'exist' in the universe by making strong appearances in the other films. Quidditch matches show up in moments, but the films make no attempt to make it a real part of the universe. The problem turns into what I would call the "Saved by the Bell" affect; meaning that our lead characters inexplicably are involved in anything and everything under the sun at the school to where it seems that they are the only ones there. The school exists to support our characters and their stories, and not the school that exists for our characters to inhabit.

There is a big deal made about Cedric Diggory's death in The Goblet of Fire, but since he was only introduced in that film and subsequently killed in that film it had no effect. Why not involve him in little ways in the other films? He is a completely expendable character. It's the same with the Defense of the Dark Arts teachers. They are the only ones whom anything of importance happens to, but since they are just thrown in new for each episode they are the person we care the least for.

Lastly, the most unforgivable sin is that the films with all their running time can't even seem to tell the Harry Potter story clearly and precisely. I've seen all the films several times yet I still find myself wondering how the villains in the first two films relate to Voldemort and how exactly Voldemort is a slimy baby thing at the beginning of The Goblet of Fire. And I'm still not exactly sure what role Sirius Black was supposed to play in the whole thing. There is all this back-story about Voldemort and his supporters as well as Harry's parents, but while it might be interesting for the movie it appears in, it makes little to no impact on the central conflict. If I never learned a thing of Peter Pettigrew, Tom Riddle, Sirius Black, Professor Lupin, Mad Eye Moody, or Quorral then it wouldn't change a thing. Sure it brings detail to the story, but it doesn't bring richness. When I should feel like the central story is becoming clearer, I only feel it slipping away in a maze of confusion about how everyone relates to each other. That is unforgiveable in a series this long.

I would dare someone to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and then watch the final film when it comes out and see if they feel completely left out of the central narrative; I doubt they would. That centrally leaves the rest of the films as filler, perhaps interesting filler, but filler nonetheless. As the films compound their magical world begins to creak and strain and show its faults. While its an interesting universe that is well crafted and colored, the story is simply too convoluted and stretched to remain compelling and sharp. Not only does the narrative drown in a sea of confusion, but the magical worlds disappear with the magnifying glass of more screen time.

I would love to be able to see what a gifted director could have done with this universe perhaps in a trilogy of films. Alas, we are stuck with a bloated, redundant, and neutered series that poses as a building and gathering narrative. In truth, the series is already dead, has been for sometime (I peg it at 2005's The Goblet of Fire). With each new film, the filmmakers simply dig up the corpse, dress it up and pop it in the casket on display. In the end, the series has become the highest grossing funeral service of all-time.

Disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts

For the record, here is how I would rank the films
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

How would you rank them?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

54. A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Directed by Ron Howard

“It's only in the mysterious equation of love that any logical reasons can be found. I'm only here tonight because of you. You are the only reason I am... you are all my reasons.”- John Nash (played by Russell Crowe)

While others find the quote above sentimental and schmaltzy, I find it to be a powerfully moving line that sums the film up perfectly. For those that find it to be a bit much for them, I would ask them, “Does Nash earn that line?” For instance, it would be schmaltzy if Nash could legitimately explain the destination of his life without Alicia (his wife whom he was speaking too). In watching A Beautiful Mind, one goes on a journey with John Nash; through his discoveries, his triumphs, and his dark valley’s. It’s a hard journey and one that he clearly could not have made without his wife, Alicia. For that reason, not only does Nash earn the line, but also it’s truthful summation of the human experience. In an odd kind of way, it reminds me of James Cagney at the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy delivering his famous line to President Roosevelt, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you”.

Unlike Cagney’s big and athletic performance as George Cohan, Crowe’s John Nash is a performance built on mannerisms, expressions, and incredible voice work. While others find it a bit over the top, I think this is one of Crowe’s career best performances (in a career full of them) and the one that should have won him an Oscar. Jennifer Connelly did manage to win an Oscar for her deserving supporting role as Alicia. Ron Howard and James Horner also deliver wonderful work here, as they successfully meld professional craftsmanship with just enough creativity to deliver a unique experience out of what could’ve been a traditional biopic.

In the end, A Beautiful Mind is one my favorite films because it not only takes us through the journey of a man’s life, but it dares to speak strong truths about the lessons learned on that journey. The message resonates with me in a way that few films do, and its for that reason that I wouldn’t want to do without it.

55. Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis

Not much in the tanks for this review, but Groundhog Day is a film that really speaks for itself. I thought it was funny the first time I watched it, but never cared much for anything else in the film until I watched it again several years ago. In fact, I read somewhere that pastors ranked this film as one of the most spiritual films of all-time. While I am not sure about that (the film really has little to say about ‘God’ or spirituality in general), it certainly is a heartwarming film about the deeper meaning of love. For that and a hilarious turn from Bill Murray, this is one comedy that I just couldn’t do without.