174-177: Harry Potter Marathon, Part 1

This is part one of a Harry Potter marathon me and my wife are doing over the next two weeks or so. I was pleasantly surprised that the 8-film Blu-ray collection was back on the shelves last weekend and took the opportunity to revisit these movies. Mind you, I have never read any of the books so my opinion will not be tainted by adaptation, omissions or changes. I do have to admit that I was never a really big fan of the Harry Potter series. I just wasn’t able to buy into all the fuss that surrounded them. I have seen all but one (the last), and am curious how they will come across now that I am going to watch them as one long series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Where it all began. Chris Columbus took the helm of the behemoth undertaking that was to become one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. By this time the Harry Potter books were already a success, so anticipation was high and Columbus didn’t disappoint. He managed (together with screenwriter Steve Kloves) to compress J.K. Rowling’s introduction of Harry Potter and his friends into a wonderfully whimsical fantasy adventure. We are thrown from one wondrous scene to the next and are treated to a nice little mystery that ends in a whopper of a teaser for what was to come with the evil Voldemort doing his evil doings. While the movie is certainly a triumph, there is also quite a bit to point out that isn’t perfect. Throughout the movie we feel Columbus constantly wants to do more, but he is bound by the enormous tome that has to be represented within the running time (which is a staggering 152 minutes). There are parts of the movie that are just there to service the exposition and introduction of all the characters, which otherwise could have been omitted. Some of these parts feel choppy and rushed. You also feel this is (as our heroes) the most immature of the stories. This is totally understandable, of course, and that also makes Sorcerer’s Stone the most  child friendly of the series. Although I still won’t let my five-year old watch it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Chamber of Secrets was to me a vast improvement over the first movie. I loved the fact that Columbus dared to take the movie down a much darker path with several scenes that were genuinely scary. Now, ten years later, I still like Chamber of Secrets very much. The kids have aged a little bit and aren’t as extremely young as they were in Sorcerer’s Stone. The stakes are a bit higher with people actually getting hurt during the movie. Harry has to really give it his all to fight the evils that lurk underneath Hogwart’s castle. There are, however, still moments that invoke the dreaded deus ex machine, like the sudden appearance of the Phoenix during the final battle. It tells me that either Rowling or Kloves were struggling there and took the easy way out. It took me out of the movie for a moment. The addition of Dobby the house elf, on the hand, is fantastic. What a great character he turned out to be. His total lack of self-respect is endearing in a way and his vindication at the end is a great moment in the movie. Chamber of Secrets has the good fortune of not being encumbered by the necessity to explain everything about our heroes. It dives right in and doesn’t stop until the 161 minute running time is over. I assure you that those minutes will fly by before you realize it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Many point at Prisoner of Azkaban as one of their favorite Harry Potter installments. I don’t see it. I don’t particularly like the third part in the this enormous series. This has several reasons. First is the tone. Director Alfonso Cuarón decided to leave behind the slightly more cheerful color palette of the Columbus chapters in favor of a nearly bleached out color spectrum that sucks all the wonder out the movie. And it is wonder that drove the first two movies. Second is the intensely choppy nature of the screenplay. I admire some of the obstacles Rowling introduces into the world of Harry Potter, like the genuinely scary Dementors. These soul sucking monsters look like they have been lifted from the pages of a Tolkien novel, but that doesn’t make them any less creepy. There are however enough moments that are so shamelessly manipulative (like Ron keeping his hand against the window in the train, or the flight of the hippogriff) that it takes me out of the movie every time. The final sequence with the time travelling is fun and all, but could the story not have been told without that gimmick? Are there positive aspects to Prisoner of Azkaban? Sure, the movie looks gorgeous, even in its almost black and white color scheme. The addition of more British heavy hitters (David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall) to the supporting cast lends more gravity to the movie. I think people think this is one of the best installments because of the shock value after first seeing part two and then Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

When I first saw Goblet of Fire back in 2006 I was terribly disappointed. Somehow the movie didn’t connect with me in any way and it in fact annoyed the hell out of me. Maybe the dreadful haircuts of the boys were to blame, or the overtly teenage problems the characters were dealing with. Maybe I was a bit too cynical at that time. I don’t know. What I do know is that I like Goblet of Fire quite a bit more this time around. While the first fifteen minutes still feel like an extreme aggregation of what really transpired, the rest felt like a real adventure for everybody involved. Harry has to cope with being the fourth contender in this ludicrous tournament, while also being plagued by nightmares that foreshadow an event that will rock Harry’s world later in the movie. On the other side there are Ron and Hermione, who have their own problems to deal with. Ron is fed up with being the third wheel and starts to stand up to Harry. However annoying and unreasonable he may be. This is typical teenage behavior and completely fitting. Also fitting is Hermione’s blossoming into an attractive young woman. For the first time she is occupied with the possibility of something else than always having her nose in a book. It is lovely to see that these two characters also get their moments to develop themselves. Then there are the challenges, which are all fun and exciting sequences. Tie those elements together and you have a really fun adventure with a tremendous pay-off where we finally get to experience Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in full force. It feels like Goblet of Fire is just the right combination of the wonder of past movies and the seriousness of the coming movies.

Soon part 2 of this duology.


078: Gladiator

This is the twelfth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Gladiator is one of those movies, like for example Titanic and American Beauty, that people have turned against for some reason. I don’t know what it is, but it seems to be cool nowadays to go against the grain just for the sake of it. I am not one of those people. I loved Gladiator when it was released back in 2000 and I love it now, twelve years later. This is a very powerful piece of film making.

The very thought of a sword and sandal epic was outrageous before Gladiator was released. Few had tried in the years since Cleopatra and just about all had failed. Ridley Scott poured the stuffy Ben-Hur-type movie into the shell of a modern action drama. With the help of state-of-the-art visual and digital effects he kept the cost relatively low and created exhilarating setpieces that continue to thrill to this day.

From the opening scenes on the battlefield of Germania to the gladiatorial training in Morocco and the climatic battles in the Colloseum, it is all arranged, shot and directed to perfection. Scott decided to go with a gritty realism that we were not accustomed with in this genre. The fights are incredibly brutal and show us a glimmer of what these fights perhaps were back in the day. They probably were a lot more brutal than what Scott shows us.

Underneath all this brutality lies a touching story about a man who really wants nothing more than to go home. Just like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Maximus is a man who rose to the call of duty, but now he is tired and he wants to go back to his wife and son. He doesn’t crave power, although he gets it handed to him on a silver platter. He is understandably devastated when everything he knew and loved is yanked away from him.

Crowe plays Maximus with such understated intensity that it is really hard not to root for him. He is a tough character. He kills people when is asked to do so, but he also manages to rally the people around him to stand by side and fight for his plight. He wants revenge for what has been done to him more than anything. He will not fell any remorse for the death of his opponent. He is a killer and still we sit there, tears filling our eyes, when he starts his way towards his wife and child. Crowe is a master in this movie and deserves the Oscar he got fair and square.

Crowe has help across the board. Joaquin Phoenix plays his opponent, a young Emperor who behaves more like a petulant child than a statesman. Connie Nielsen is his, maybe, ex-lover who wants to help him so bad, but fears for the life of her son. Richard Harris is an aging emperor who has to choose what’s best for his empire, even though this will upset the one person you don’t want to taunt. There are so many fine performances in Gladiator that it is hard to describe them all here. You just have to see it to believe it.

This also counts for the brilliant sets and surroundings for the story. The way Scott has used real places and enhanced them to his liking is nothing short of astonishing. The moment Maximus and the gladiators enter the Colosseum for the first and the camera does a 360 around them at a low angle so we see all the way to the top of the arena is breathtaking to say the least. Moments like these are peppered all the way through Gladiator and I guarantee you that you won’t notice the majority of them. This way of working would pave the way for Scott’s next huge project, Kingdom of Heaven, but more on that later.

Gladiator is long, but that is something we have come to expect from Scott. Most of his movies have been around or above two hours. This time this is not an issue. There is no wasted second in Gladiator. On the blu-ray there is an enhanced version that has several scenes added to it. These don’t really add anything to the story and Scott doesn’t even want these in there, because at the beginning he says to the camera that this is not the director’s cut. The only reason I can think of why you should watch that version is the commentary by Scott and Crowe together. They are really funny together and reveal tons of information about the process behind Gladiator.

It is unfortunate that Gladiator’s achievement of reviving the sword-and-sandal genre hasn’t yielded a great many movies like it. We got Troy, 300 and Alexander, which were average at best, and a slew of vastly inferior movies like the wretched Clash of the Titans. It’s a shame, because this genre has the potential to provide great drama. But let’s not end on a down note. We have Gladiator and we have to be thankful for this. I love Gladiator and so should you.

> IMDb