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Jason Wallis Splitting ‘Hallows’ may have saved Harry Potter series

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2010 4:26 pm

Finally got rid of the last nagging symptoms of my several-weeks-long illness, so I’m back in full form and doing my very best to catch up on the rest of the year’s offerings in preparation for my year-end Top 10 list. Still got a ways to go (with about a dozen more promising movies yet to open), but progress is ongoing and can be tracked via my film log on http://www.lodinews.com/blogs/battle_royale/">Battle Royale.

Coming up next week, expect a look at Dwayne Johnson’s hard-R revenge-themed action flick “Faster.” After that, your guess is as good as mine. That’s when the highly anticipated limited releases will start rolling out, and I’ll try to get to them as they open. Weeks in which no major awards-season picture opens, I’ll fall back on whatever looks to be the most enjoyable of the wide releases. Kind of a loose format for the next few weeks due to the lack of a concrete release schedule, but bear with me.

For now, though, I bring good news regarding the latest Harry Potter film ...

Warner Bros. has been taking some flack these past few years as their Harry Potter film series took a nose-dive in terms of creativity and overall effectiveness, and the harsh criticisms are not without cause. After Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell each left the series after just one (successful) installment, the studio turned to the well-respected British filmmaker David Yates to close out the final three chapters, and the results have been uneven.

Sure, the movies still rake in obscene amounts of cash all over the globe, but from an artistic standpoint, the consensus seems to be that Yates took a once-vibrant series and ran it into the ground — perhaps as a result of his own willingness to let the studio heads call all the shots. Though marginally entertaining, “Order of the Phoenix” and “The Half-Blood Prince” both suffered enormously from flat, truncated screenplays that never allowed any breathing room for these characters or their story.

They weren’t even films, in the traditional sense of the word — more like half-baked pageants in which every moment, every single shot, appeared to be the work of coked-out studio execs looking to streamline the series down to the last detail. Serviceable as “movies,” perhaps, but as cinema? Absolutely unforgivable.

This history is part of what makes “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1” such a surprising treat. I was one of the many vocal critics who initially lambasted Warner Bros.’ decision to split J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter book into two separate films, but that seemingly greedy choice turns out to have been the correct one: By making “The Deathly Hallows” into essentially a five-hour movie, they have allowed the material the time it deserves.

Now, instead of a marred, rushed, completely unsatisfactory adaptation (like the last two films), we have a moody, effectively paced piece of cinema that allows room for some wonderful moments: an intensely creepy meeting between the evil wizard Voldemort and his increasingly disloyal Death Eaters; a beautiful sequence in which Harry and Hermione share an innocent dance wrought with subtext; an animated segment that relates “The Tale of the Three Brothers”; a shockingly bold scene where Ron envisions a naked Harry and Hermione kissing passionately. Moments like these had me suspecting that the studio had secretly brought back Cuaron to put things right.

The darker tone also helps. The last few Harry Potter movies have been more serious and dangerous than the early installments, but here the tone is unforgivingly bleak. At this point in the story, things are headed toward an epic showdown and the gloves are off. Volemort’s dark forces are roaming the countryside and killing at will in their search for Harry and his friends, and as the young wizards are thrust into the wilderness to escape detection, the narrative takes some interesting turns. Hogwarts is out of the picture, and with it the sense of safety and belonging the students once enjoyed there.

This set-up requires a level of vulnerability not yet seen from the young cast, but they handle the new material with apparent ease. Emma Watson, as Hermione, seems to have learned to act without relying on her giant, overly active eyebrows. And as friends-turned-rivals Harry and Ron, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint explore a darker side of their relationship with maturity and subtlety. They’re aided by an ever-expanding supporting cast, including new additions Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour and under-rated character actor David O’Hara as Ministry lackey Albert Runcorn. Many of these supporting players have a hard time finding their place in such a dense narrative, but their efforts — however brief — always add a little something.

The primary purpose of “Part 1” is to effectively tease the audience and get them eager for the full-on chaos promised in the follow-up, and the film has achieved that goal nicely. After the last couple installments, I was about ready to give up on this series, convinced that Yates’ continued involvement would spell doom for the franchise. Turns out the guy just needed some breathing room (understandable when you’re working with an 800-page source, and fans who get irate when you change even the slightest little detail).

And the best part: With the battle for Hogwarts and the long-awaited showdown between Harry and Voldemort coming up in the next entry, you just know it’s going to be even darker, and more epic in scope and scale, than this one. Consider me primed.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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