For the uninitiated, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the book where author J.K. Rowling finally went off her rocker, turning out a 734-page monster of a book (vs. 309 pages for #1) that made everyone wonder if any child could possibly have that kind of attention span.
Turns out they did: Book four is also where Rowling went from Big Hit to Mega Worldwide Sensation, and the Harry Potter series became a cultural touchstone. (This is also about the time that ultra-right wing groups started denouncing the series as demonic.)
And so, everything that is past is prologue: The first three films now feel like nothing more than window dressing for this one, a rich movie with expert plotting, clever humor, and a sophistication lacking in the earlier pictures. At the same time, it's fine for (older) kids, who'll root for Harry and Co. through his many scrapes in this edition.
Goblet of Fire finds Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) back for his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy. Things are getting heavier for the lad: He's having vivid dreams about Lord Voldemort being revived in the flesh. On top of that, the school is hosting the legendary Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which three aspiring magicians will compete to win a fancy blue cup (plus bragging rights), which brings two foreign schools -- one a collection of brutish Russian guys, another a group of breathless French fairy queens -- into Hogwarts for the term. While the tournament is meant for older kids, naturally the undersized Potter will find his way into the mix. On top of that, Harry's got some raging hormones, which has him swooning for fellow student Cho (Katie Leung), while Ron (Rupert Grint) tries in vain to suppress his budding love for Hermione (Emma Watson). This comes to a head of sorts during a formal dance, one of the film's most memorable scenes. And all the while, Voldemort inches closer to Harry.
Overall, the story is obviously and dramatically pared down from the book. Even I, a non-reader, could tell that there were huge gaps in the plot. Strangely, it doesn't really matter. All but the bare essentials have been stripped away, and even though it tops 2 1/2 hours, Goblet is a lean, mean, storytelling machine. There's rarely a dull moment (a stark contrast to some of the overblown earlier installments in the series), and it's amazingly easy to follow the serpentine plot. Partly this is because we've had three movies to get up to speed on the myriad characters of Potter, and even though Goblet introduces a good number of new faces, keeping track of them is a snap. The downside of this is that, aside from a little romance for the main three characters, there's not much time to develop our heroes further. But really, it isn't needed. They're fleshy enough as it is, and the film does give them a bit more structure to set up #5.
Speculation has been rampant about how director Mike Newell -- of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame -- would work out as the helmer of an action-oriented kid flick. Turns out, he's better than those who came before him. Not only does Newell have a good handle over the film's action showpieces, he knows how to deal with awkward romances and growing pains of the teen years. Maybe it's because he's the first British director to try his hand at this very British series?
Speaking of the action: The special effects in this installment are hands-down better than ever. There's probably not a single scene in Goblet of Fire that isn't manipulated with CGI in some way -- but you'll never notice. The effects are so good and so seamless that you seriously can't tell the difference (reality-wise) between Radcliffe and the giant, fire-breathing dragon staring him down.
And speaking of dragons: The film is scary, more so than the other three. As a case in point, the woman sitting in front of me, with two kids aged about six to eight, had to leave the theater after the first two minutes because the little ones were so frightened.
Altogether the film is just about right for what a Harry Potter movie ought to be. The story is consistently interesting but not too confusing, the dialogue is spot-on, and the film blends action and quiet moments perfectly. (Frankly, the film should win an Oscar for editing.)
But overall Goblet of Fire has succeeded in doing one big thing that the first three movies completely failed at: For the first time, I'm actually looking forward to the next in the series.
A little magic ought to fix that arm right up, no?
Welcome back, Potter.
The beloved Harry Potter returns to screens, a scant year after his most debut, with the film version of book two in the unfathomably popular Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Unfortunately, while the Potter-obsessed will likely find few faults with the film, this sequel captures much less of the original's magic. (And while I've not read the books, I understand the same can be said for the second novel as well.)
Secrets finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back at home with his Muggle family on summer vacation, locked in his room (though no longer under the stairs). Before long, Harry is set to return to Hogwarts -- despite the insistence from his uncle that he is no longer allowed to study magic. But a daring prison break, courtesy of the Weasley family -- including Harry's best bud Ron (Rupert Grint), gets Harry back to school, despite the meddling of a Yoda-like "house elf" named Dobby (very obvious CG). The masochistic Dobby tries to convince Harry that his life is in danger if he returns to Hogwarts -- though in reality his life appears more in danger due to Dobby's "helpful" meddling.
Harry of course does return to Hogwarts, where all his familiar experiences await him. Hermione (Emma Watson) is still the class brain. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is still the school clown. Snape (Alan Rickman) is still Snape. The new additions to the cast include a new Dark Arts professor, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), a narcissistic wizard with questionable ability, as well as the father of Harry's platinum blonde archrival Malfoy, Lucius (Jason Isaacs).
While the cast is still in fine form (the exception being a shockingly haggard Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore; Harris died a few weeks before the film's release), it's the story that is decidedly lacking in this episode. The titular Chamber of Secrets is a legendary room inside Hogwarts fabled to hold a menacing creature. It can only be opened, we're told, by an heir to the Slytherin family. When a mysterious message appears on the Hogwarts walls in blood, Harry begins hearing hissing voices, and students begin to turn up paralyzed. It appears the Chamber of Secrets has been opened -- and suspicions fall on Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) as the heir. Or is it Harry?
What follows is another nearly-three hours of exposition as Harry, Ron, and Hermione attempt to crack this riddle, Nancy Drew-style, while the body count at Hogwarts keeps rising. Mercilessly padded, the movie drags us through ages of all-too-familiar territory: a Quidditch match ends predictably; spells go awry; the trio works on a potion together; one-note characters appear only to say their line and soon exit the story. Finally, invariably first-on-the-scene Harry coincidentally discovers a blank diary -- it's amazing how much coincidence drives the plot -- that leads him on a circuitous path to discover the Chamber, just in time for a final showdown with what looks astonishingly like a miniature-golf hazard.
Jeez, I'm bored just writing about it. So much of Secrets is so unnecessary that my audience was way ahead of the circuitous yet ultimately very simplistic story. Kids spent the three hours running up and down the aisles -- only their parents had the fortitude to stay with the plot. That said, this installment is much funnier than the original, and it has a bit more of a grown-up sentiment to it. Still, it's going to take more than an ominous voice in the walls and a flying car to keep even the most patient adults interested in a three-hour movie.
Chamber of Secrets is enjoyable for many of its stretches, and it's unfortunate that director Chris Columbus (giving up the reins for episode 3) didn't take more chances with the source material, excising the many irrelevant parts and adding in a bit of his own vision. As such, we have a movie that plays out in fits and starts of fun alternating with boredom. Sad to say, the kids will probably want to leave midway through this one and ask you to replay the original on DVD when you get home. Poor Harry, when we see you again (in two years' time), I hope you'll have regained a bit of your magic.
As with Potter #1, the film comes to DVD in an exhaustive and impressive two-disc package, headlined by one of the most aggressive 6.1 channel audio tracks I've ever had the privilege to hear on DVD. This film thankfully makes it much easier to find the deleted/extended scenes, all of which are well worth checking out and add a bit of depth and flavor to an otherwise so-so movie. There are also tons of games for the kids and a few interviews for the adults, including one with J.K. Rowling.
Try putting right down the middle of the course.
As it turns out, it doesn't really matter who the Wonder Boys are. The film has enough substance and, especially, ribald and dark, dark humor to carry it despite a few minor flaws like this.
Continue reading: Wonder Boys Review
Well folks, it's another year at Hogwarts Academy (two years in real life), and our rapidly maturing stars are back for another round of magical high jinks and mass merchandising in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Harry's been absent since the fall of 2002, and even casual viewers will notice that a lot has changed over the last two years. Director Chris Columbus (who did the first two films) is out, replaced with the controversial Alfonso Cuarón, who last hit the scene with the teen sex romp Y Tu Mamá También.
You'll notice Cuarón's touch right away. He likes to pick up the camera and get right in his actor's faces, moving all the while, a stark contrast to Columbus's traditionalism. Gone as well are the rich Technicolor tones of the Columbus movies; Cuarón prefers washed-out, yellowish shading that connotes decay and decrepitude. This is old-school wizardry, not kids stuff. In one fell swoop, Cuarón has reinvented the movies into an arthouse series that's as un-kid friendly as it gets.
How you feel about all of that depends on whether you're old enough to vote. I can't speak for the kids, but I heard more than one crying jag erupt during Azkaban's 150-minute running time. Will young kids relate to this iteration of Potter? Here's the story, you be the judge:
Once again, Harry's living with his cruel aunt and uncle, anxious to return to school. That happens soon enough, and quickly he discovers he's the target of the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, a wizard named Sirius Black who was convicted for killing dozens of people, most notably Harry's parents. Now he's escaped and is making his way toward Hogwarts, ready to snuff young Potter. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now a troubled 13-year-old, doesn't seem overly fazed at first. He's up to his usual school antics; taking classes, sneaking out to go to town, dodging Draco. It isn't until Black arrives on the scene for real (well past the midpoint of the movie) that any of this starts to gel into a plot.
And I use that term loosely. I think of myself as an astute follower of stories, but Azkaban can be baffling if you haven't read the book or don't have someone nearby to explain who's who. For those going into this blind, there are soul-sucking dementors (not especially terrifying here), shapeshifting wizards, old friends reunited, and a time travel subplot all coming together into one of the least satisfying dénouements in fantasy movie history. While it's riddled with plot holes (which I won't reveal since they'd spoil the ending), there's no doubt Harry's going to come out of it okay: The last half hour of the movie is rehashed from another angle as we run through the time travel bit, reliving the scenes from another angle.
Azkaban the novel gets mixed reviews from Potter maniacs -- some say it's their favorite book; others say it's the worst. However, if my research is correct, it is the worst-selling of the five books to date, and it will probably go down in history as the worst of the movies, too. (But I've been wrong before, of course.) In any case, by all accounts, the books really get good starting at #4 (due out in movie form next year), while Azkaban is a slim volume where comparably little happens. Ultimately Harry is in virtually no peril compared to that in the first two stories and those that follow. Heck, Voldemort doesn't even show up in this round.
The other notable problem is how radically older the cast has gotten since 2002's Chamber of Secrets. Radcliffe is valiantly fighting off puberty, but Emma Watson (Hermione) is looking her age; she's tarted up in jeans and a rainbow belt for most of the film, and sports a more stylish haircut to boot. Now 15, Rupert Grint (Ron) looks like he ought to be starring in the next American Pie movie as a wacky foreign exchange student. And Tom Felton, who plays Draco, is now 17 years old and ought to be playing rugby in college. He probably is. I couldn't believe it was the same actor.
Speaking of actors, Richard Harris is sorely missed as Dumbledore. I love Michael Gambon, but he doesn't do the kindly old wizard too well. He's got a Robert Mitchum-esque undercoating of villainy that he just can't shake. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman are fine as the new blood, but it's Emma Thompson that steals the show as a doddering divination professor.
The rest of the series remains intact. Twittering ghosts and pictures are as we remember them (Dawn French steals a scene as a portrait of a vain fat lady), the Quidditch match is an abbreviated bust, and Snape (Alan Rickman) is as menacing as ever. But nothing much happens - certainly nothing to enhance any of the characters aside from the tenuous hand-holding of Ron and Hermione - and Azkaban generates very little energy along the way.
I have high hopes that Mike Newell will reinvigorate the series with next year's Goblet of Fire (how it will clock in at less than 8 hours I have no idea), but I can't recommend Azkaban for anyone but die-hard Potter heads.
The DVD is just the thing for those Potterphiles, including two discs of extras, such as bonus footage, cast interviews, and games for the kids.
Wand by Hogwarts. Jeans by Guess.
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