Directed by David Yates. Screenplay by Michael Goldenberg. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
For me, the biggest letdown with the new Potter film has little to do with the film itself – I had somehow convinced myself that a teaser trailer for The Dark Knight was going to debut with the film. Yeah, I know it doesn’t come out for another year still, but a year isn’t an uncommon lead time for a highly anticipated movie these days. After all, there’s already a web site. Instead, I was treated to a teaser for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming 10,000 B.C., which seems likely to be a considerably less thrilling event.
Anyway, on to Potter. I’ll state for the record that I haven’t read any of the books, so if any of the Potter Internet Monkey-People (PIMPs) happen across this review, feel free to flame away on that basis. That said, I walked out of the movie feeling about the same way that I didn after walking out of the last two; I’m pretty sure I understood what all happened, but I have no idea why any of it happened. You’d think that a movie that runs almost two and a half hours would find more room to flesh out basic character motivations, but, not so much. Why is everyone unwilling to acknowledge He Who Must Not Be Named’s (if you’re unfamiliar, that’s code for ‘Voldemort’) return? This point is hammered away at throughout the film, but I didn’t get why.
It’s becoming more obvious with each film that there’s not seven movies worth of stuff there without bogging the story down in minutiae. This was especially a problem in The Goblet of Fire, which seemed endlessly intrigued with junior high school politics that took up so much runtime yet were less complex than a typical episode of ”Saved by the Bell”. Phoenix jettisons most of that, and I was thankful for it, but I still can’t help but wonder where those 138 minutes or so went. As has long since become the custom for these films, all of the story advancement occurs in the last half hour, and the first two hours or so are spent watching Potter and friends mostly chasing their tails. Although I did think that making Potter a teacher was a compelling development, perhaps the first real advancement of the Potter character in the whole series.
Overall, I think it’s a better movie than the last two. It also mostly jettisons another convention of the series that had grown tiresome, which I like to call the Magic Magic Device. So often, the magic in the series has been used like Batman’s utility belt in the 1960s “Batman” series: whenever you need something, it just happens to be there (anyone else remember the Bat Shark Repellant?). Need to breathe underwater? You’re in luck, there just so happens to be a plant that will let you do that which no one else seems to be aware of! Need to go back in time? Why, I just learned a spell that lets me do just that! Need to sneak around undetected? Here’s a magic cloak that you’d think would be commonplace in a school full of wizards but is not! You get the idea. I know magic is the whole point, but it’a always seemed so arbitrary. There’s only one instance of this in Phoenix that I remember, although the climactic battle seems to be operating under similar principles.
And the movie does provide more screen time to my two favorite characters in the series to date, Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black and Ralph Fiennes’ He Who Must Not Be Named (i.e., Voldemort). Oldman makes for one of the more interesting good guys around (see also, Batman Begins), because he has such a natural sinister edge and doesn’t get caught up with trying to sanctify his character. Fiennes lets his makeup do his scenery chewing for him, and plays HWMNBN (again, that’s Voldemort) fairly straight. This lets him have it both ways at once – he’s over the top without resorting to histrionics, and he’s funny while still effectively dark and menacing.
At the end of the day, though, I’m getting ready for the series to end. I actually respect the various filmmakers involved for managing to make five films so far without me tuning out entirely, but it is starting to feel like a long journey with a questionable payoff. Two more to go.