Monday, November 28, 2016

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

After the box office success of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone in Fall 2001, Warner Bros. quickly got to work on the series' second installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was released exactly one year after the first film. Not counting Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2 which were shot as one production and released separately, this first sequel marked the fastest turnaround between any of the Harry Potter movies in the entire series. Although The Chamber of Secrets was quickly made, the actors seem to have grown up a lot which is most noticeable in the voices of Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint. For a series that takes place over seven consecutive school years, it's a very good thing the movies got on a quick pace early on to capture the actors in their late youth and adolescence. A major strength of the Harry Potter film series is the surefire consistency of its actors and producers and occasional recurrence of its directors and composers, and this second chapter follows the exact formula of the first movie, with Chris Columbus and John Williams returning to direct and score the film. This scenario worked to the benefit of The Chamber of Secrets as efforts weren't invested in recreating the look of the wizarding world or Hogwarts but rather in developing Year 2's storyline and honing the cinematic special effects, allowing the viewer to easily become enthralled by the best mystery of the Harry Potter series.

Each Harry Potter sequel features the addition of at least a couple actors to the recurring cast, and in The Chamber of Secrets Mark Williams, Jason Isaacs, and Robert Hardy come on board as Mr. Weasley, Lucius Malfoy, and Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, respectively. Fudge is featured quite briefly, but on-point performances from Williams and Isaacs adeptly reveal the contrary upbringings of Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy, in turn showing their sons' characters as much as the actual performances of Rupert Grint and Tom Felton. Toby Jones and Shirley Henderson give a lot of character to the more magical characters of Dobby and Moaning Myrtle, and a one-off performance by Kenneth Branagh as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Gilderoy Lockhart is spot-on; Lockhart is every bit the pompous charlatan he is in the novel.

The Chamber of Secrets is one of most complete and faithful adaptations among the Harry Potter movies and only excludes a couple memorable yet extraneous moments from the book such as de-gnoming the Burrows and Nearly Headless Nick's deathday party. This is one of the couple Harry Potter movies which has an extended version, and while most of the deleted scenes which were eventually added back in don't accomplish anything except for padding out what is already the longest Harry Potter movie, the brief Kwickspell scene with Filch is appreciated as it acknowledges the background of the character in one of the installments in which he's featured most heavily. Actor David Bradley is rarely mentioned among the overflowing ensemble cast of stars in the Harry Potter series, but he provided an impressionable look for Argus Filch which was best showcased in The Chamber of Secrets, even if his character was relegated to comic relief in later films. The concept of a squib isn't clearly communicated in the movies, even with Mrs. Figg in The Order of the Phoenix, but the cut scene here is a nice nod to fans who can fill in the blanks.

Although John Williams also composed for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before handing over the reigns of the franchise's music, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets marks the last grandiose, fully orchestrated score which has the iconic John Williams sound from start to finish. It's not nearly as distinct as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and often sounds reminiscent of his other work, particularly the action scenes which draw a mix of Jurassic Park and the Star Wars prequels and "Fawkes the Phoenix"/"Fawkes is Reborn" which recall Hook and Home Alone (another Columbus/Williams collaboration), but this soundtrack has its standout moments, however, and really excels when it embraces a mysterious or ominous mood as superbly displayed on "Spiders", "The Chamber of Secrets", "Meeting Tom Riddle", and the introduction to "Knockturn Alley". These darker moments are prevalent throughout the film and instill an unnerving feeling around each flame-lit corridor as the chamber of secrets is opened at Hogwarts. Combined with the handheld cameras used by Chris Columbus, the suggested motion of the Basilisk slithering through the school is very effective.

This sequel shows off some great new sets including Borgin and Burke in Knockturn Alley, the Weasley residence (AKA the Burrows), Dumbledore's office, and of course the chamber of secrets. The first three of these sets display the set designers' ability to not only create a space but also fill it from floor to ceiling with detailed props and paraphernalia convincing viewers that the characters really exist in these places and collect wizardly items and artifacts and accumulate junk and clutter. The chamber of secrets is incredible with its maze of tunnels and passages leading up to the final room with the serpent statues and that giant stone wizard's head coming out of the water like a colossal and foreboding Mouth of Truth, and the often conservative Chris Columbus sets up some nice angles of Harry in the tunnels as he frantically flees and hides from the basilisk.

The film’s use of CG is strong in both its action sequences including the basilisk in the chamber of secrets and the spiders in the Forbidden Forest as well as its interactive characters such as Dobby the house elf and Moaning Myrtle being notable achievements. The fact that the studio made a giant animatronic for Aragog demonstrates a lot of taste and is an early example that the production design team led by Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan had the right instincts on when to go digital and when to go practical with special effects throughout the entirety of the Harry Potter film series. While not the most notable animatronic, Aragog still filmed really well and has those subtleties that are hard to capture through computer animation like the glint of light in its oversized bug eyes. In contrast to the one giant stationary spider, the CG approach on the horde of spiders chasing Harry and Ron as they flee the Forbidden Forest was the right call. The animatronics for both the basilisk and Fawkes the phoenix are well-designed and blend in well with the detailed CG versions created for their animated sequences. The transformations caused by the polyjuice potion didn't come out looking the greatest, but other special effects including the flying car, the cornish pixies, and Ron barfing slugs still hold up today, further evidencing that The Chamber of Secrets noticeably improved upon the digital effects of The Sorcerer's Stone. Compliments to the sound team for creating the most irritating, shrill voice imaginable for the mandrakes, and Harry's floppy, boneless arm after Lockhart attempts to heal him is simply fantastic.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets boasts the best Quidditch scene of the entire series, largely aided by improvements to the visual effects and more dynamic camera angles. From a narrative standpoint, this is a big match as it's Gryffindor vs. Slytherin and this time Harry's rival Draco Malfoy is the opposing seeker. Combined with the threat of the rogue bludger, the competition has never been fiercer. The John Williams score in this scene is reminiscent of the Coruscant speeder chase in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (also from 2002) and builds an intense atmosphere as Harry and Draco race for the snitch. It's a captivating sequence and showcases precisely why Harry Potter was worth bringing to the big screen. Quidditch was a great invention of the wizarding world and really seemed to have a fanbase among kids after the first two movies came out. There's a brief Quidditch scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban where dementors descend on the match and Harry faints and crashes his broom, but after this, Quidditch would be bypassed in every other movie except The Half-Blood Prince with tryouts and the match in which Ron thinks he's taken Felix Felicis played moreso for comedy than excitement as Quidditch was in the early films. They don't even show a second of the Quidditch World Cup in The Goblet of Fire; one moment they're pregaming, and the next thing Barty Crouch Jr. is lighting up the sky with the Dark Mark. I used to lament the lack of Quidditch in the subsequent movies but realize now in hindsight that the definitive Quidditch scene was captured in The Chamber of Secrets and future entries appropriately focused on realizing other aspects of the novels.

One rather strange moment at the end of the film is when Lucius Malfoy attempts to hex Harry after being tricked into giving Dobby the sock inside the diary which sets him free. With his wand pointed at Harry, Lucius actually begins to shout “Avada…” before he's cut off when Dobby knocks him back with some of that funky elf magic. There’s no known spell which begins with that word other than Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse. In the book, Lucius merely lunges at Harry before being knocked back by Dobby, so this was a mistake on the movie’s part presumably due to improvisation, as it would be out of character for a cunning and calculated Death Eater to kill a student inside Hogwarts. However, following this odd encounter we're left with a great ad-libbed exchange between Lucius and Harry:

Let us hope that Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.

Don't worry, I will be. 

This improvised line really speaks to Dan Radcliffe's professionalism and grasp on the character from an early point in the series and feels like a promise that he'd continue to portray Harry Potter to his best ability across the subsequent films.

The Chamber of Secrets is the last movie featuring Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore as he died just prior to the release of the film and was replaced by Michael Gambon for the remainder of the series. It's difficult to compare these two actors' portrayals of the Hogwarts headmaster for a variety of reasons. First off, the character of Dumbledore becomes more intricate as the novels progress, largely beginning in The Order of the Phoenix which was not even published before the last movie with Richard Harris was made. As such, the content of the respective stories covered by Harris and Gambon as well as the material each actor had available to them was inequitable. In the first three books, Dumbledore is little more than the kind counsel, father-figure to Harry whereas later on we begin to understand the reasons for his close relationship with Harry as his connection to Voldemort is uncovered and ulterior motives for Dumbledore's favoritism of Harry are presented. Unfortunately, many of the interactions between Harry and Dumbledore were cut down in the scripts of adaptations for The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, robbing Michael Gambon of critical opportunities to display the softer side of the headmaster demonstrated by Richard Harris in the first two movies and flesh out the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry for the movie audience. The scene with them in the headmaster's quarters after the Ministry of Magic incident is incredibly brief in the film version of The Order of Phoenix but in the novel carries immense emotional weight through their quarrel about Dumbledore distancing himself from Harry all year because of his link with Voldemort and his misguided intentions of protection and Harry's reaction to enduring this abuse as well as hearing late explanations for why Dumbledore didn't make Harry a prefect, what the prophecy stated, and why Harry must stay at Privet Drive during the summers, all of this finally coming into the open right after the death of Sirius. Virtually all of this dialogue is missing from the movie! Another interesting facet to the character of Dumbledore is that the most the reader ever learns about him is in The Deathly Hallows through Rita Skeeter's exposé published after his death which is filled with information provided by Bathilda Bagshot including his family history and relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Harry reads this often-shocking biography and begins to question the man he knew, but most of this background is cut from the final two films which forces audiences of the movies alone to build their opinion of Dumbledore much more on the face value of his limited scenes.

A lasting impression I have of the character of Albus Dumbledore from reading the books is that as an accomplished wizard and headmaster of a major wizarding school he is all things to all people and students and always meets them on their level. Richard Harris certainly displays this characteristic in The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets in the disclosures he has with the 11-12 year old Harry at the end of each movie who's just faced and prevailed against dark magic he didn't fully understand. Played by Michael Gambon in the following films, Dumbledore has limited soft and gentle scenes but interacts with a wider range of characters including the Ministry of Magic and most telling of all Draco Malfoy. At times his performance seems to confuse Dumbledore with Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings and he's even stated that he didn't read the Harry Potter novels, but Michael Gambon delivers in key moments. Gambon is often criticized as playing Dumbledore with too much anger, in particular when he confronts Harry about his name appearing in the goblet of fire, but throughout The Order of the Phoenix gives the appropriate air of righteous anger as the Ministry and Dolores Umbridge take further control of Hogwarts. As the concluding scene with Harry in this movie is cut short, the best character moment from Gambon comes in his scene with Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy confronts Dumbledore atop the Astronomy tower at the end of The Half-Blood Prince. In this scene Gambon effectively communicates Dumbledore's care for Draco. Michael Gambon handled the major scenes which made it to the scripts and unquestionably had the physicality necessary for the battle with Voldemort in The Order of the Phoenix and the horcrux cave excursion in The Half-Blood Prince, two of the best scenes in the entire film franchise, so I have a definite preference for Gambon's Dumbledore overall.

All things considered, the nuanced character of Albus Dumbledore is not one that transferred well to the films, but I attribute this shortcoming more to the plot-heavy focus of the later screenplays rather than to Harris or Gambon individually as performers. That being said, neither of them added the depth of performance or vivacity which Alan Rickman brought to Severus Snape or Maggie Smith brought to Minerva McGonagall. Richard Harris was of deteriorating health due to Hodgkin's disease in his last film appearance, so as interesting as it would have been to see him incorporate the growing complexities of Dumbledore in later performances, I'm glad the transition took place early in the series so as to provide a consistent look for this major character in the third through sixth films which featured a series of three different directors and varied approach to portraying the look of the more mature Harry Potter movies.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

We all realized there were multiple layers of storytelling and transfiguration at work within those iconically two-toned tomes whose colors are still so vivid in memory: purple cover on red spine, blue cover on green spine, viridian cover on purple spine, auburn cover on black spine. That's right, The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire... Harry Potter is the young-adult fantasy series by British author J.K. Rowling that became the world's best-selling series of novels in the history of printed word, put books in the hands of millions who wouldn't have otherwise been reading, and told the unforgettable story of the boy who lived. In November 2001, about a year and a half after the fourth of seven novels was published, the film adaptation of the first entry Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in theaters, vaulting the popularity of the series to new heights, teaching everyone how to pronounce Hermione, and creating the definitive look of Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry and the fantastic world we had only begun to imagine.

It’s providence that Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Harry Potter because everything about the production of the film series was first-rate from the very beginning. Very rarely does a literary series come along with such universal appeal, and WB recognized Harry Potter's cultural significance and rose to the challenge of adapting the greatest book series of our generation. The fact that they made a two and a half hour movie dedicated solely to the first book that cost $125 million shows the care and effort that the studio dedicated to this project. Most other contemporary book series never had a fair chance of seeing a movie for every novel whether due to lack of popularity or simply screenplays that were too scattered to pave a clear path to follow, but where the likes of Nickelodeon or 20th Century Fox would be prone to falter, the initial Harry Potter film established that Warner Bros. would go all out to faithfully portray the seven book series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a tremendous movie which set the tone for the rest of the films that followed to loyally adapt J.K Rowling's novels and spare no expense in bringing the magic of Harry Potter to cinema.

Producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, director of photography John Seale, and director Chris Columbus, along with the help of many others, impressively perfected the definitive look and template for the Harry Potter franchise in their first go. The film's sets are incredible at giving a distinct look and continuous feeling of the Hogwarts castle despite being filmed at a variety of locations including Alnwick Castle, Gloucester Cathedral, and Oxford University; when watching The Sorcerer's Stone, Hogwarts truly feels like a real place. Other key filming locations included King's Cross Station, the London Zoo, Australia House (Gringotts), and various London storefronts. The distinctly designed castle and Diagon Alley set pieces and props such as wands, brooms, books, quills, and wizardly candy and treats add a finishing touch in each scene and serve to bridge the realism of the Muggle world and the hidden fantasy of the wizarding world.

While its main visual strength lies in its predominant use of location shooting and practical effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also makes good use of CGI for 2001 especially on the castle ghosts, the moving staircases, the wizard's chess board game, and Fluffy the three-headed dog. Practical and digital effects are also used well in tandem in the scenes featuring Quidditch, the troll in the dungeon, and the life-size chess match. Special effects would be the series' biggest area of improvement in later movies, however, and the computer generated effects of The Sorcerer's Stone are quite poor in particular spots including Norbert hatching from the egg, Neville falling off his broom, and a few obvious green screen backgrounds. I see these weaker effect shots as a parallel to the novel’s improper use of commas. They break immersion for a split second (which is admittedly dastardly in the fantasy genre) but are ultimately just minor blemishes on an otherwise beautiful work of art. Speaking of, the movie poster artwork by Drew Struzan (best known for his artwork on Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones) is splendorous. I wish we he would have designed art for the whole Harry Potter series.

Like the original novel, the movie has a very tight plot which develops throughout the course of Harry's first school year at Hogwarts. For being just over two and a half hours, The Sorcerer's Stone never feels that long whenever I watch it which is a testament to how engaging it is. Remarkably, everything important in regards to not only progressing the story's narrative and characters' relationships but also creating the atmosphere of the wizarding world and boarding school is adequately addressed and given equal weight which is something that can't be said for most of the other Harry Potter movies. With the small exceptions of the midnight duel and Snape's potion room leading up to the mirror of Erised, every scene one would want to see from the book made it into the final movie. When everything's considered, the often quaint Philosopher's Stone was adapted with a sensible tone that retains its warmth but would also fit the more mature conflicts of the later stories. As a testament of its success, while much of the screenplay is lifted straight from the novel, many lines are memorable because of the acting and delivery in the film version:

I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great.

Our caretaker, Mr. Filch, has asked me to remind you that the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a most painful death.

Now if you two don't mind, I'm going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed - or worse, expelled!

She NEEDS to sort out her priorities.

Nearly headless? How can you be nearly headless?

Harry, it's you that has to go on, I know it. Not me, not Hermione, YOU.

I’m not going home, not really.

When it comes to the cast, it's nothing short of incredible to look at the young actors who were chosen and see how well most all of them turned out as the film series progressed. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom). Our favorite first-year Gryffindors were just age 10-11 when filming began (Tom Felton was 13), but adult actors Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Richard Harris (Headmaster Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) led the way and were crucial mentors for the young, developing actors. The smaller roles of Harry and Ron's family members including the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling), Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), and Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) were also well chosen, and John Hurt provides a brilliant performance as Mr. Ollivander. All these actors embodied and gave life to the personalities penned in the novels and showed command of their characters from this first film.

The one factor above all else which coalesces the magical aura of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the orchestral score composed by John Williams. "Hedwig's Theme" is beautifully woven throughout the film and is memorable as the series theme used heavily in the early movies, but there are several other great numbers with "Platform Nine-and-Three Quarters and the Journey to Hogwarts" and "The Chess Game" of particular note, not to mention the unforgettable aethereal tones of "The Invisibility Cloak and the Library Scene". The emotional range of the tracks matches the mood of each scene and enhances the feelings of marvel, whimsy, longing, and suspense at precisely the right moments. Next to The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Sorcerer's Stone is truly one of John Williams’ finest film soundtracks.

Although subsequent installments in the Harry Potter film series reached new heights in special effects, better displayed the talent and maturity of its young stars, and visualized the most compelling moments of the novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone captures the unbridled wonder of magic and the wizarding world better than any of the other movies and for that reason needs to be recognized as one of the best entries in the film series if not in fact the very best of the entire lot.