Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire

Potential is a fantastic thing, but it can be a double edged sword.

Up until this point the Potter series have been thriving on pure potential. Why so many of Lost’s fans turned so viciously on it is because the series seemed like five seasons of potential and one of pay off. Goblet Of Fire is the installment in which Rowling finally shows her hand and to my mind she pulls it off wonderfully.

Mortality, which would become the series’ central preoccupation, rears its ugly head here and the threats which had been building abstractly around Rowling’s cozy world became startlingly concrete. And I think it’s these threats, just as much as her hominess that give the series such a juice. Voldemort and his Death Eater’s have always been a much more substantial villain than your usual children’s book (or for that matter fantasy) Big Bad. Here’s what Drew McWeeny had to say in his take on The Deathly Hallows.

After all, this is a series about the battle between a philosophy of racial purity and one of inclusion, and that disturbing subtext is made clear again in this film. The result, for me at least, is that the bad guys in this series are genuinely upsetting and not just generic action movie bad guys. One of the things that I grow weary of in movies is the idea of "saving the world" because it seems like such a ridiculous easy thing to say, but such a hard thing to actually define. I have a hard time understanding why any villain would hope to destroy the world or end the world. There's nothing in it for them, no goal that makes sense. With these films, the goal is reshaping the world into a place where wizards and witches live in a superior position to the plain and boring Muggles, where magic gives them an advantage and where blood defines your place in the world. It's believable, and it's awful,

And it’s that real sense of menace that makes the novels relatable. It seems to me that the battle in Harry Potter is less about Good and Evil in the Cosmic capitalized sense, but between those who are decent and those who are not. The scene in which Mr. Weasly, who though befuddled and eccentric remains perhaps the most decent character in the Potter universe, doesn’t allow Harry to leave until he has made Dursely say goodbye, becomes as much a battle between the forces of good and evil as Harry’s final duel against Voldemort. The series has always seemed so English to me in the sense that like The Lord Of The Rings it is at the end not a battle for glory, but rather a battle in defense of coziness. The Good character’s fight in Harry Potter, to defend not lofty ideals, but the simple things, the hearth and the home, the library, and the kitchen.

It’s decency not morality with which Rowling ultimately paints her conflict, its why someone like Crouch is able to painted so wrong despite being on the right side and why for all the fantastical elements Rowling’s universe always firmly resembled our own.

And it’s really kind of amazing just how little of this Newell makes of any of this. If Columbus’s work was inelegant then Newell’s is out and out clumsy.

Mike Newell is of course the owner of one of the most half assed careers in Hollywood. And if upon revisiting I think the film he made here was actually worse then the Columbus ones. Which though poor at least were coming from source material that is at it’s core, children’s books, charming though they may be. Here Rowling has stepped up her game and Newell has not followed.

There’s hardly an element in the work that’s not problematic. After Cuaron teased more naturalistic performances from them in Azkaban, the young cast here has backslid. Mightily. Everyone is playing broad here, even some of the older cast, Gambon hits his nadir playing Dumbledore drunker and surlier then Rooster Cogburn. All exposition and plot machinations are startlingly inelegant. The perfunctory checklist nature of the films also intensifies under Newell’s watch. Also backsliding the films imagery, after Cuaron’s elegant eye it’s more noticeable then ever when a director knows nothing to do with this world then point a camera at it and shrug.

Occasionally all these disparate bad elements combine (take the rival school’s entry to the Hogwarts Hall). In which Dumbledore stands up, slurs his way through about a minute of explanation of whom these people are and what they’re doing here only to have these ill defined characters storm in and perform with some startlingly bad CGI. Then we’re off to the next scene.

Like the film’s of Columbus the film is partially redeemed through spot on casting, In this case a spot on Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, whose casting is frankly ideal. He’s an actor who can embody the contrasting elements that make Voldemort such a compelling villain; the aristocratic hauteur, warped intelligence, core of cowardice and genuinely twisted core.

So credit Newell with this, he did like Columbus before him at least gather the elements, thankfully someone who knew how to make better use of them was coming.


Jake said...

It's funny, I watched the movie about a year and a half ago and thought it handled the more plot-driven style well (at least better than Columbus' dull nonsense), but I watched it again over the holidays and had to struggle not to go back and completely rewrite my old review. It's such an awful exposition machine, somehow capturing the absolute worst aspects of Rowling's writing and not a damn thing of the positive. The acting is almost univerally bad (Emma Watson is one breathy lass, but she delivered every. last. line as if she'd just done two hours of cardio before Newell called "action." Radcliffe, who has had ups and downs, has never been worse than he is here -- when he has to sell "He's back! Voldemort's back!" I burst out laughing -- and Rupert Grint continued to be wholly overlooked and got shafted with all the worst aspects of Ron.

I've been going through the books lately, though I've not been reading but listening to the British audiobooks as read by Stephen Fry (I normally don't touch books on tape, but it's Stephen Fry). I've been struck by how wildly Rowling's writing can veer, from delightful, resonant, witty and tangible to hackneyed, expository and hopelessly dull (and I don't think Hermione ever "says" anything without a "shrilly," "exasperatedly," or "testily" after the word). But book 4 is one of the stronger ones, all plot but all good, focused plot. Considering what a tangled mess of intriguing but conflicting threads OotP is, Goblet of Fire is fantastically focused. It and Azkaban are the best-plotted of the books, while 1 and 6 have the best character. I've soured on Deathly Hallows and never cared for 2 or 5 but look forward to your thoughts on the rest.

Bryce Wilson said...

Great call on Watson. She gave the most natural performance in the first three films. But here. She's. EMPHAZING. strangely. Tctch!

As for Rowling's writing, I have to say I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I've liked it. Maybe it's just that I overly steeled myself, but despite the fact that she, as you pointed out, often writes like she's campaigning to become "Queen Of The Adverbs" her prose is for the most part light and lucid and though she does occasionally lose the plot (most spectacularly in the camping trip in Deathly Hollows which seems to unfold in real time) I find her universe so appealing that I don't mind spending time in it.

In regards to Phoenix, I'm in the middle of it now, and it's actually caused me to reconsider my take on it in no small part. I still think it's one of the weaker Potter books, but I don't think the series on the whole would be as good if it didn't exist.
It takes one for the team.

Jake said...

My chief issue with Order of the Phoenix is that there is a great book in there but it tries to awkwardly take a fantastic inquisition allegory and a smart look at the way people who tell the truth can be ostracized by those in power who want to maintain the status quo, and then filter it through the sieve of an extremely thin take on teenage hormones that's too much tied to plot over natural changes. I understand that Harry needs time to act like a normal human kid in the middle of this, but it's so abysmally handled that by the time all the various, useless subplots get added just to purge all the sidestories for the brilliantly focused Half-Blood Prince, it's just too much.

I'll save more detailed observations for your post on OotP but for now I'll just say it's a shame a character as utterly brilliant as Dolores Umbridge is so often wasted in that bloated novel.