Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Amid the apocalyptic overtones of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, a moment of real magic and rare levity occurs when Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), after summoning an army of knight statues to protect Hogwarts from impending attack, excitedly admits, “I’ve always wanted to do that spell!” Yes, professor, and we’ve always wanted to see you perform it; or, at least those of us who have slogged through seven books and seven movies. To see Maggie Smith deliver these words with the wonderment of a child fittingly captures the sentiments many viewers will have about seeing this long film journey reach its end. Most of the characters shown in the moments to follow—as an orb-like shield slowly forms around the castle—have either played a key role in one entry in the series or have been in the background through many of them. But that hardly matters; because after so many films these faces become embedded in a world we have seen unfold across a decade’s worth of cinema.

The aforementioned scene is a microcosm for Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Director David Yates seems to want this final installment in the series to capture the excitement of the moment but also to strike up nostalgia for all that has gone before. It achieves both of these in various moments throughout, but it doesn’t quite sync with what has building in the previous two or three films, somewhat to my disappointment. To try to make sense of this requires some back-pedaling, if you will indulge me. I have written these commentaries from the perspective of knowing many of the ins and outs of author J.K. Rowling’s opus. I have argued that as the films have grown more confusing to those who have not pored over the novels, they have grown more interesting filmically on a roughly parallel track. Despite the often-clunky writing and plotting, each of the films (perhaps with the exception of Goblet of Fire) dating back to Prisoner of Azkaban has developed its own beat and affective state. I have noted previously that Alfonso Cuarón's Azkaban will likely be recalled as the film that allowed much of this to happen.

When Yates took over the series, he imbued it with a serious, unsentimental approach that at first (in Order of the Phoenix) mimicked Cuarón's style but then developed into something more his own. Yates’ films each have their own personality while still upholding a broadly low-key, expressive visual approach that reached its apex with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For the most part, these later entries have been light on action, while heavy on drama, mood and characterization, allowing for Yates’ aesthetic to evolve. (Much to the chagrin of a good deal of fans, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Yates opted to jettison the battle Rowling penned for the climax of Half-Blood Prince in favor of giving more prominence to the loss of Dumbledore.) As the stakes have increased with regards to the narrative arc, the films have turned more inward, giving us aching images and forming melancholy states the likes of which few commercial films aspire to. If you cast narrative aside, the later entries in particular are intricate, even beautiful works.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2, although a direct continuation of the story, represents a shift in an approach that seemed carefully constructed in previous efforts. It finally delivers the bloodshed and warfare long foreshadowed, and it doesn’t skimp on either. A great early shot of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) blood-covered feet as he gingerly walks about the countless goblins he’s just murdered sells this point effectively. Not surprisingly, this final installment of the series contains no less exposition than its predecessors and is equally confusing in story details. In this manner, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 falls in line with previous efforts. (To better understand this phenomenon, see Matt Zoller Seitz’s dialogue with his daughter Hannah over at Edward Copeland On Film.) But in living up to its marketing aphorism of “It All Ends,” and hurling as many familiar images and faces at us that it can muster, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 feels very self-aware as to its role as the conclusion of an eight-film journey. Its overt acknowledgment of this fact interrupts the subtle, somber state the series was moving towards. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is an orgy of activity and nostalgia, with Fiennes’ gleefully demonic impression of Voldemort at its center. And while Fiennes is great fun to watch in the role, we realize that Voldemort isn’t a terribly interesting character, which is a good analogy for the film. The battles are indeed impressive, but they tend to throw off the narrative and aesthetic shades that have grown over the course of the more recent entries.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 starts with a brief excursion in the caverns beneath London, but soon directs its focus to Hogwarts, where professors and students prepare for the last stand against Voldemort and his army. The stretched-out action set piece that takes up a majority of the middle section is a work of fine filmmaking craft and design, and it is seen mostly through the eyes of the central characters. Yates generally avoids elongated shots of devastation and instead navigates the activity and carnage from the ground level but without forgetting the scale of the proceedings. Save for its slower start, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 moves with such certitude that one can easily excuse the writing/plotting problems that have marred previous installments and are again on display here. The aura of urgency building with each passing scene is palpable given that Yates guides the action so assuredly. Questions of horcruxes and wand ownership dominate the film, again, as they did the previous two installments, so it is a credit to Yates that he manages to steer these entries away from drowning in their own exposition.

The soul of the film concerns not horcruxes or Harry’s showdown with Voldemort, but a character whose significance to the overall narrative was thought to be secondary. Regrettably, I have made only passing mention of Alan Rickman's portrait of the character of Snape over the course of these articles. Snape has been one of the very few secondary roles to take on a life beyond his short appearances in the films. Rickman’s stunted inflections and cold stares manage to be both menacing and humorous. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 finally provides Rickman the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and show the vulnerable man beneath the façade. The most affecting moments in the film involve Snape, from his grisly death—which is obscured visually, but powerfully conveyed with sound—to a montage of memories that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) witnesses showing the deep love Snape had for Harry’s mother. Yates recognizes that Snape’s story is the core of this film, as well as the broader story, which in part explains why the opening shots are devoted to him. However, because these scenes are so moving, the tale of Snape’s tragedy tends to amplify the weaknesses of the main conflict between Voldemort and Harry. When their wands finally connect in the final act, the effect is surprisingly mute. That’s because the recent movies have not been about the eventual showdown between good and evil. They have instead focused on the pain, suffering, and remorse of the people who must fight the war.

For Harry’s part, a few moments before his final confrontation with Voldemort offer a bookend to the interweaving themes of memory and death evident in the later entries. “Does it hurt?” Harry Potter asks his godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), who, along with Harry’s parents, has been resurrected to accompany Harry in his last moments of life. Harry has witnessed the deaths of so many loved ones in his young years and has likely felt the pain of death more than anyone else. Now resigned to it, Harry’s matter-of-fact question as to the sensation of life escaping the body is a reflection of Yates' quietly understated approach both aesthetically and affectively over his four films. It is one of the subtle, but shattering moments that permeates the later entries, amounting to a moving rumination on death. Aside from these calmer moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 expends much of its energy on battles and spells. Interspersed with these are a handful of nice character moments serving to boost the nostalgia factor, and perhaps deservedly so. While Yates doesn’t do anything shockingly out of turn with the film, I found myself struggling to connect with the epic, symbolic conflict and was more interested in the smaller moments.

While my reservations for Yates’ final chapter stem from its positioning in relation to his previous efforts, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a notable achievement in commercial moviemaking and a pretty solid rebuke to the current Hollywood system of assembly-line blockbusters. In her review of Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Manohla Dargis observes that the Harry Potter series has “affirmed that the relationship between mass art and its consumers is at times incredibly rich.” And what makes this series especially interesting and worthwhile is how it has progressed through the hands of several filmmakers and a steady cast of young and veteran actors. Unlike its modern equivalent, The Lord of the Rings, which were assembled by the same creative team over a much shorter time period, the Harry Potter series has evolved on-screen, maintaining several consistencies and curious inconsistencies. I wish that the films were not as beholden to Rowling’s twisting (albeit compelling) novels. Nevertheless, despite the frequent confusion that accompanies the watching of these films, the long view reveals a series that has remained focused on characters, feeling and filmmaking craft, while often telling this classically inspired story with wit and nuance. That the imperfections are on such naked display only adds to the richness of the mosaic.

Week With a Wizard, Day 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) is the first film in the series not to be based on a full novel. It is instead rigorously adapted from roughly the first three-fifths of J.K. Rowling’s final tome. Both the studio and filmmakers took heat when they announced that the book would be split into two movies. To categorize this decision as anything other than a ploy to generate more revenues would be difficult; suffice to say that it was perhaps inevitable for reasons of storytelling, as well. For starters, Rowling’s exposition-heavy approach in the later novels veers on exhausting. This, coupled with the strict established approach of Steve Kloves’ adaptations, dictated that the film follow the novel closely and all but demanded that the adaptation be cut down the middle. Given the circumstances, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 inescapably feels truncated. As such, it lacks concrete structure and is more episodic than other installments. These might be considered flaws if we’re measuring by a certain standard. But as an experiment in stuttering and disrupting the narrative flow established and honored over the six previous entries, the movie is a curiously compelling beast.

Narrative structure is one of the steadiest elements of the Potter films. Each tale picks up at the end of the summer with Harry and company preparing to return to Hogwarts. After some rudimentary setup they arrive at school, where the story generally stays put. Here, Hogwarts has no presence. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) dodge their final year to journey across Britain in pursuit of horcruxes that hold pieces of Voldemort’s soul. The urgency to find the horcruxes is counteracted by the trio's lack of leads as to how to acquire them. Throughout their journey, Harry, Ron and Hermione return to places they have visited in films past—such as the Weasley home and the Ministry of Magic—before ending up in the wilderness, away from most of civilization but not from danger.

One of the more arresting elements here is the manner in which Harry, Ron and Hermione bounce from location to location by apparating (which is a fancy word for simply disappearing in one location and arriving in another). The asperity of these transitions interrupts the rhythm of a scene or a particular section of the film. We are left feeling as though we can never trust the surroundings, no matter how quiet or desolate they may be. Moreover, these apparations made me hyperaware to details of a given locale than I would have been otherwise. Two transitions stand out: The first occurs during the dangerous escape from the Ministry of Magic, where director David Yates cuts to a Malick-esque shot of swaying treetops from the ground up. The second is when Harry and Hermione depart a rocky area on a cliff and arrive in a small village where the snow absorbs all sound.

The abruptness and unpredictability of so many sequences is a running motif in the film. Despite extensive stretches of quiet, Yates rarely allows a single scene or moment to last very long. Some sequences even seem to emulate Peter Jackson’s penultimate "Lord of the Rings" movie, The Return of the King, by cutting across various locations to show different events and characters that will soon clash. This approach starkly contrasts with the last film, Half-Blood Prince, arguably the most deliberate of the episodes. With Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Yates never allows you to feel at ease despite the fleeting comfort afforded by returning faces and occasional nostalgia for a less threatening time.

The mix of comfort, anxiety and urgency is evident in the sprawling opening title sequence, which cuts between the three characters in their respective homes. Ron gazes to the horizon with his family buzzing about in the house behind him while Harry looks from his bedroom as the Dursleys prepare to permanently vacate their home. The portrait of Hermione is significantly more affecting, as she casts a spell on her parents to wipe away their memories of her. The memory-wipe scene moreover establishes Hermione, rather than Harry, as the emotional focus of the film. From the standpoint of narrative Harry is of course still the most visible of the three, but most of the events filter directly through Hermione. This might seem like a risky move if you consider that in the near-decade long history of the series, Emma Watson has been the weakest link among the three actors. Her unremitting brow and jaw movements have likely caused more than a few viewers to cringe at various points during the previous six films. But in Deathly Hallows: Part 1 Watson is luminous as the anchor of the group. She creates a mature portrait of anguish that cuts through Ron and Harry’s brooding states. And in one single instance, Watson propels the film to places no other installment in the series has gone. The moment is awkward at first. Harry’s impromptu invitation to dance takes her by surprise, but she reservedly accepts. As Nick Cave’s “O Children” becomes clearer on the soundtrack, the two share a moment that is joyous yet devastating. Through a range of movements and expressions Watson garners the most emotionally vulnerable sequence in the series. And keeping with the film’s tone of abrupt comings and goings, it halts swiftly. Harry and Hermione simply remain in the room as the space between them is once again blanketed in the sorrow they temporarily escaped.

Another unexpectedly moving sequence is the death of a relatively minor character. In fact, of all of the deaths that have occurred in the films so far, the demise of Dobby the elf has the most weight. This is unusual considering that the deaths of Sirius Black and Dumbledore are more personally meaningful to Harry and more important to the story. But the sight of a cradled Dobby becoming still in Harry’s arms is one of the great images in all the Potter films.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 tests the mettle of any Potter fan with 147 minutes of dense exposition and disconnected moments. It plainly wears many of the weaker elements of the series, such as its preponderance of explanations and paucity of narrative information. But its lack of structure and abrupt shifts give it a unique quality that is a welcome in the series before it bows to the battle-heavy action of the last film. More importantly, there are some unexpectedly moving moments that speak to the resonance of the broader narrative. Such instances make the film more than the sum of its parts. The story can go from meandering exposition to unbridled emotion with the same speed as its characters can apparate from place to place. Spun at a rapid pace but also slow-brewing, building momentously yet abounding in quiet moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is an amalgam of the various elements and styles, strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the series.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

In my previous essay, I noted that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the first work to recognize the limitations that come with functioning as part of a larger mosaic. It provided fewer restatements of common themes and less background for its developments. The irony is that while Phoenix more heavily depended on a keen familiarity with its predecessors, the considerably richer and challenging visual language elevated it to become a distinctive vision unto itself. Its successor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), furthers this progression in a different fashion. The novel’s central plot device involving Harry’s discovery of an old book belonging to “The Half-Blood Prince,” from which he learns mysterious new spells, is barely a footnote here. However, that the film’s title is rather inconsequential turns out to be a major asset, as director David Yates shirks narrative unity and instead concentrates intensely on the feelings of pain, guilt, and anxiety that underlie the proceedings.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) relationship provides the emotional core of the film. Together they seek to understand Voldemort’s power by investigating Dumbledore’s memories of the Dark Lord from when he was a student at Hogwarts. These memories are held in small vials, which, when poured into the Pensieve, enable one to live them out. The visualization of these memories is composed of several conventions of the movie dream sequence, including distorted sound and washed-out colors. Although the memories themselves are not exceptional, the film on the whole has an inimitable dreamlike characteristic. Many scenes and images unfold with little attention toward logical progression. Yates’ assured and sensory aesthetic sets the film apart from previous installments, even his own predecessor. The director revels in the dimensionality of cinematic space, weaving through tighter and more vertical alleyways (such as in Diagon Alley) and around staircases and hallways in Hogwarts. Angles are pronounced, movements are slow, and distances have depth and focus. Bruno Delbonnel’s darker and earthier photography suggests a more human focus and a moody atmosphere, and composer Nicholas Hooper’s score is restrained and (perhaps in a nod to John Williams’ music for the third film) often accentuates a single instrument with a light sound that fills the image.

The opening sequence is a primer for the ethereal ambience of the film and introduces an effective recurring motif. It shows Harry swooned by cameras but numb to their flashing bulbs and screaming operators. He has just lost his godfather and Voldemort’s return now weighs on him considerably. But everything drowns out when Dumbledore—standing next to Harry and perhaps understanding the incredible burden Harry must now bear—extends his arm around Harry to shield him from the scrutiny. The scene is without dialogue and gradually whittles its focus down to Dumbledore’s paternal grasp of Harry’s arm. Throughout the film Yates uses hands to emphasize the transference of emotion, pain, and burdens from person to person. Often there is a tender quality to these instances, such as when the flighty Professor Slughorn, played with ingenious charm by Jim Broadbent, finally submits to Harry’s pressure to give over the memory of a critical encounter of his with a young Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort). For much of the film, Harry has pursued the memory knowing that it contained essential information about Voldemort, but Slughorn has resisted because, as he says, it would ruin him. After quietly recounting his bittersweet memory of Harry’s mother, Slughorn shakily holds out a vial into which to “drop” the memory. Harry’s hand then enters the frame opposite Slughorn’s and clasps his hand, holding the vial steady as the memory is poured in; a simple composition, but potent.

Quiet transactions such the one I’ve just described are a trademark of Half-Blood Prince, which is singularly focused on the difficulties of accepting the pains of both the past and the future. While Slughorn is dogged by past mistakes, Draco Malfoy (Harry’s rival, played by Tom Felton) is burdened by actions he has yet to commit. Malfoy broods for much of the film, isolated from many of his fellow sixth-year students who are more often concerned with love charms. Yates’ observances of Malfoy’s damaged emotional state contrasted with the sexual discoveries of the other students are especially poignant, as suggested by a single composition from outside of the castle glimpsing the various night encounters of the students. We see a party in the Gryffindor house before winding up a stairwell as Ron and his new liaison share an embrace, and then finally we are taken past the school observation tower where, across the way, Malfoy is ominously postured.

Half-Blood Prince is significantly more preoccupied with pain and anxiety than previous outings, but its expressive palate encompasses other feelings as well. These include a passionate encounter Harry enjoys with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), in which, again, hands play a crucial role, and a most surprising scene late in the film that teeters on a kind of ecstasy, after Harry drinks the luck potion and enters a joyously intoxicated state. The film also ventures into dark territory when Harry casts a spell on Malfoy during a duel they share in one of the bathrooms. In what can only be described as the most ethereal scene in all of the Potter lore, Harry approaches a twitching and surely dying Malfoy, as blood rushes from his many wounds. When Snape arrives on the scene he stands over Malfoy, enshrouded in haze, and, in a protracted shot, stares at a speechless Harry to haunting effect.

The wide range of emotional states reflected in the various transactions between characters may appear aimless in the specific context of this film. However, Yates is intuitive to know that Half-Blood Prince, situated at the end of a long series, must accomplish things both on its own as well as in relation to established characters and themes. With this film he explores the deep undercurrents of many of the relationships that have developed over the years. Wisely, Yates keeps the focus off of the relationship of Ron, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Harry, aware that the next installment would grant him that opportunity. This film belongs to Dumbledore. While Michael Gambon gave the character a presence previously, here he allows us to peer into his soul. Dumbledore is more softly spoken and contemplative this time around. We are unsure throughout of how strongly the character is resigned to his eventual fate. Nevertheless, his desire to protect and guide Harry is subtly offset by what appears to be his acknowledgement that Harry will need to go on without him.

The closing scenes galvanize the many emotional threads that have been building over the course of the movie, beginning with a chilling scene set within a cave. While the zombie-like creatures that eventually threaten Harry are memorable indeed, Gambon’s portrayal of an increasingly feeble old man is piercing. A few moments later, when Harry and Dumbledore return to Hogwarts, time seems to stop altogether as Harry witnesses the death of a beloved mentor and father figure. The film’s depiction of this crucial moment is worth noting for its departures from the novel, much to the chagrin of many viewers. In Rowling’s version, Harry is immobilized and physically unable to stop the events, but in the movie he watches from below after Dumbledore instructs him to stay there. It’s a wonder that the filmmakers opted for a different path here since there appears to be no convincing reason for it, other than the heightened sense of discomfort of seeing the events occur from Harry’s perspective below Dumbledore. It is a representation of the scene’s generally off-kilter sense of space. Unlike in the book, the observation tower here is a closed and confusing area, adding another tantalizing element to an already tense scene.

After a failed pursuit of Dumbledore’s killer, Harry returns to the courtyard for his final encounter with the headmaster. The hands motif is again restated here, bookending the opening sequence with Harry’s hands clutching Dumbledore’s lifeless body. It is one of the few moments of the film in which emotion is on full display as opposed to simmering beneath the surface.

On the whole, I better understand now why Half-Blood Prince is such a divisive film in the series. Its sacrifice of narrative cohesion in favor of pushing aesthetic and expressive boundaries has rubbed some fans the wrong way. And given that fans constitute a majority of viewers, the film’s reputation has suffered. On a personal note, this represents the only chapter of the series that came across to me as a very different movie upon revisiting it. After my first viewing, I was ambivalent. I did not anticipate the slower rhythms, especially after such a fast-moving and exhilarating fifth film. This may speak to the nature of a serial saga such as the Harry Potter movies, in which expectations likely play a greater role in how we make something of a given film. With my recent viewing, I was more taken with the movie's bared expressiveness and ambition. It somewhat made me mourn the fact that this series is trapped within a serial mold, both commercially and narratively. Within this mold, however, Yates stretches the artful and affective scope to a new threshold with Half-Blood Prince.

Week With a Wizard, Day 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

A glimpse at Platform 9¾ in the first Harry Potter film reveals a colorful, lively place where first-year students board the Hogwarts Express on their way to school. Jump ahead a few years, and it is the sight of one the many nightmarish visions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). In what initially appears to be an ordinary transitional scene, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) walks across the platform and sees a motionless figure in the distance amid the smoke and activity. As he moves closer, the figure emerges from obscurity as an expressionless Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), dressed in dark slacks and shirt as opposed to the cloak he donned in the previous film. The “Is it real or not?” question barely registers before we're already on to the next scene aboard the train. The image is fast, but it lingers long afterwards and it recapitulates the film rather well.

Bereft of the childlike wonderment that marked previous entries, Order of the Phoenix is fixated on fear, power, and corruption. Visually and tonally, it is a close cousin to the third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But unlike that film, Order of the Phoenix externalizes its thematic and emotional overtones and is less focused on Harry himself. This may seem an odd ploy, considering that of all of J.K. Rowling’s novels, Order of the Phoenix is perhaps most fixated on Harry’s complicated emotional state. His anger and frustration are at times suggested here, but the film is more effective when it is wading deep into the political underpinnings of the magical world. It reveals an ineffectual government whose corruption is increasingly pronounced and exploited in the wake of Lord Voldemort’s return. Stark images inspired by the Third Reich abound, most notably represented by a giant banner of the Minister of Magic holding his chin high and gazing toward the beyond.

Order of the Phoenix is split into two thematic sections. The first of these is a despairing depiction of how a corrupt government willfully denies self-evident truths and manipulates its citizens’ grasp of the world. Director David Yates never quite spells out whether the Ministry of Magic is already under the influence of Voldemort or whether its denials are made out of blind fear, but this uncertainty works to the film’s benefit. The Ministry of Magic uses Harry and Hogwarts School as emblems of unwieldy methods and progressive ideals that represent a threat to its paternalistic institution. Neither Harry nor Dumbledore is to be trusted, according to the Ministry. As a result Harry feels more isolated, as he is still haunted by his encounter with Voldemort (in the last film) and fears another eventual confrontation.

The other major thematic thread represents Harry’s acknowledgment of fellow friends and students who want to assist in the fight against Voldemort. Their resistance is in direct response to the Ministry’s stooge at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose affinity for the color pink and chirpy laughter conceal torturous methods of discipline and an 'iron fist' approach to school affairs. In portraying the children’s rebellion, Yates manages to lighten the proceedings somewhat to focus on the friendship of children who collectively decide to confront the threatened reality they live in and step into bigger shoes. The newest member of the young cast of characters, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), brings a much-needed weirdness to group of friends and quickly becomes one of the memorable additions to the later films. Harry also strengthens his ties with mature wizards away from school. Radcliffe’s scenes with Gary Oldman (as Harry's godfather Sirius Black) treat the dialogue with delicacy and signify a calmer, quieter approach to dramatic energy than that of Mike Newell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Given the disparate threads to explore, in addition to handling numerous character introductions and re-introductions, Yates attempts to expedite the plot through use of newspaper headlines and extensive montages that supply pertinent story information. Along the way, many of series regulars slip into the background. These include Snape (the always-perfect Alan Rickman), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Lupin (David Thewlis), and even Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). This is an unfortunate side effect of a story that must move at a quickened pace to get where it’s going. Nonetheless, despite the fluxes in tone and the screenplay’s long checklist, the film doesn't feel patched together or rushed. That’s because Order of the Phoenix is the first film in the franchise that requires its viewers to have a fairly deep knowledge of the previous films/books. This may account for why the movie seems to be so full of detail and yet unfold with such swiftness. Yet this adds another wrinkle: Despite its deft exploration of fear and companionship, Order of the Phoenix demands more than just its own images and plot developments to attain full effect.

Perhaps Yates recognized that, at this point in the series, addressing the full-scale detail and themes of the story at large would not be feasible, particularly since the screenplay covers so much ground already. He therefore sets a few threads aside—such as sexual discovery and the sad state of many of the characters—and by turn crafts a film that operates nimbly and with a direct, but nuanced thematic center. It doesn’t have the same emotional punch as the climax of Goblet of Fire, but it achieves a more consistent tone that I found more satisfying. Yates employs a more sophisticated visual language that is especially palpable during the final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore and its immediate aftermath. Blending horror tropes with a quick-cut music video aesthetic, these scenes organize the numerous visual and thematic shades into an evocative collection of sights and sounds. As with most of the other sequences, these moments are transient on screen but the images are lasting. In retrospect, these stylistic flourishes laid atop the political intrigue and an anti-establishment banding together of friends help to fashion a more concise and lucid experience than most other entries in the series.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

As the middle entry in the book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire occupies a curious position. Much of its story is inconsequential, yet it contains sequences of wide-spanning significance that vaunt the tale into new and darker depths. This posed some challenges for the film adaptation, which needed to serve as a gateway to the later installments' more serious storytelling. Additionally, it also had to deal with how to maintain interest in a set of characters who are so established that they may begin to grow stale. Even though the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, breathed much-needed life into the series, the dramatic tonal and aesthetic changes it brought about required that each successive film provided a distinct enough vision while remaining consistent with the tropes and styles already established. This struggle is evident in the otherwise ambitious and swift version of Goblet of Fire (2005), which signals a change in storytelling rhythm right at the start.

The movie opens with a long, winding shot of a snake slinking in-between tall grass and tombstones and into a dark mansion to meet a shadowy figure assumed to be a still-weakened Voldemort. This is eventually revealed to be a recurring nightmare for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who we rejoin after he's already escaped from the Dursleys. Harry and company set forth to the Quidditch World Cup, a wizard sporting event set among the English countryside where Muggles are ignorant to a towering stadium. These early passages are dense with activity and are frenetically paced, which is a welcome change after three films that take their time to unfold. Perhaps the reason for such rapidity is that the film condenses nearly 150 pages of Rowling’s long text into so little screen time. Working with a novel of roughly 800 pages, screenwriter Steve Kloves can no longer afford to slightly abbreviate the text. This turns out to be an asset to the later films, which are adapted from longer, more intricate novels and tend to find their own beats and rhythms.

These early scenes set the stage for sport and competition to feature prominently. Upon arrival at Hogwarts, the children learn that the school will host the Tri-Wizard tournament, an Olympics-like competition in which students from international schools of wizardry and witchcraft compete for one trophy. As a vehicle to move the plot forward, the tournament provides a steady point of interest. And the notion of an international tournament would seem to allow director Mike Newell to present a vaster world of magic that is only hinted at in the first three films. But this sense quickly evaporates in an early scene portraying the students’ arrival at Hogwarts in glaring and (almost certainly unintended) comedic fashion. The two sets of visiting students embody profound stereotypes of cultural Otherness. There’s the synchronized female group, each of whose perfectly straight blonde hair and uniform movements bewitch the boys with their gracefulness. Then we have the hyper-masculine school of muscle men donning dark colors and parkas while back-flipping through the Great Hall.

The scene plays like an original SyFy Channel film and reflects Goblet of Fire's general tendency to serve up exaggerated characterizations and performances. Save for Harry and Ron, nearly every character in the film is subject to over-expressive speechifying. All of the new characters and a good deal of established ones act and speak with protracted urgency, as if to suggest that everything they say carries weight. Many of the actors do not appear comfortable in their surroundings. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is especially notable for his aggressive behaviors, at one point even shoving Harry against a wall during interrogation. Although Gambon offered a more youthful take on Dumbledore in the previous film, his outright fierceness in Goblet of Fire is off-putting. (In later installments, particularly in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Gambon is finally given free reign to make Dumbledore the contemplative, tender wizard he is portrayed as in the novels.) Moreover, these performances are not assisted by Newell’s cartoonishly hackneyed shot framings, e.g. the introductions of tournament entrant Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) and minor villain Barty Crouch, Jr. (David Tennant), in separate scenes.

In the wake of Prisoner of Azkaban, such elements are conspicuous. Alfonso Cuarón offered a more intimate and practical take on the wizarding world, using the imagery and surroundings expressively. With Goblet of Fire, Newell places more emphasis on character and performance to the extent that many dramatic scenes lose their potency (many of the adult actors seem as though they are performing in a stage production).

The hokey representations on display here tend not to mesh with the scope of the tournament games, which include underwater bouts with mer-people and navigating an ominous maze. These scenes are, for the most part, exciting thanks to Newell’s deft talent for action sequences and creating tension. The director's eye for action becomes quite clear with a sensational dragon chase among the rooftops of the school. Aided with soaring fanfares from composer Patrick Doyle (taking the reigns from John Williams), these scenes are fluid and appropriately epic.

Goblet of Fire's real achievement is its portrayal of the sexual discomfort of its young characters. This is where Mike Newell’s emphasis on performance (or overperformance) actually works as an asset, particularly as compared to the subtler expressions of intimacy and closeness in the third installment. If Cuarón's film represents the understated beginnings of sexual discovery, then Goblet of Fire takes the next step and turns the discovery into bewilderment and frustration. Newell centers on all the small actions and posturings that accompany a teenager’s inevitable acknowledgement not just of sex, but also of the social practices drawn around sex. Newell elicits every uncomfortable moment he can from his actors: Harry and Ron’s (Rupert Grint) struggle to find dates to the Yule Ball are funny, yet sweet. And Harry’s nervous proposal to his crush is a beautifully observed moment of the shame and pride that often follow after finally mustering the courage to say something to someone with whom you’re smitten.

Goblet of Fire is most effective as a look at the fleeting trivialities and growing uncertainties of young adulthood—an age at which you are old enough to experience a complex range of feelings but do not yet possess the tools necessary to understand them. The young characters are burdened with apparently trivial matters, yet Newell seems to understand that these things only appear trifling in retrospect. It is a nice balance of observation and empathy. We are still at a distance, but are slightly more endeared to the characters for witnessing their unhinged and subsequently guarded behaviors.

The innocence of these encounters serves as a nice backdrop for the climax, when Harry faces down the newly risen Lord Voldemort, played with wily delight by Ralph Fiennes. It is not until later in the series that Fiennes gives you a sense of the character’s calm sadism and profound disdain for non-pure-bloods. Here we are exclusively focused on the fleshy embodiment of the arch-villain who until this point has lurked only in shadow and memory. His pale skin and reptile-like nose complement his skeleton-like body structure, which is forceful and domineering, particularly over the feeble Harry. The dead-serious nature of this scene contrasts heavily with much that has gone before. Everything else wipes away in one single moment.

That Newell doesn’t handle the acting or his over-visual approach with much subtlety can be frustrating. I noted at the start of this essay that Newell’s economical aesthetic in some ways resembles Chris Columbus’ style with the first two films. But this assessment is not entirely warranted, in part because the strengths of this film consistently outmeasure Columbus’ efforts. However, there is a more general point that bears mentioning. While Azkaban unraveled the workings of Columbus and offered a fresh take on the tone and feel of the series, Goblet is more significant as a transitional episode in the narrative. It is understandable, then, why this film attempts to take on disparate elements of the three films that preceded it, before culminating with events that shift the course of the story. Given its place in Rowling’s opus, the material perhaps doesn’t lend itself to the kind of brooding vision that Cuarón provided with the third film. That’s not to say that Newell would not have benefitted from fewer goofy close-ups and an overall stronger aesthetic. However, placed in context, Goblet of Fire widens the scale of this fantasy universe and fashions a solemn emotional resonance that—despite needing to still develop—no longer requires the stylings of the previous films going forward.

Week With a Wizard, Day 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Early in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), after an unpleasant encounter with a hooded creature known as a dementor, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) looks through the window of the Hogwarts Express, his reflection projected against the rain-soaked night. The image wipes to the exterior of the familiar castle as a children’s chorus sings a rhythmic, medieval-sounding tune with words taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We then enter the Great Hall, where a choir of students with frogs in hand concludes the song with the forceful and ominous phrase, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” This is one of the film’s many small departures from author J.K. Rowling’s source material, which had been followed to a tee in the previous two films. Both playful and sinister, the song (titled “Double Trouble”) turns up in various capacities in the score and permeates the proceedings. But its first appearance in the scene described above boldly announces a new direction in the Harry Potter series. What once felt so clean and mechanical under the even hand of Chris Columbus suddenly bleeds with mystery and mood.

Director Alfonso Cuarón shakes up Columbus’ work with changes extending beyond small alterations or additions to Rowling’s text. Some of these changes were inevitable, such as the replacing the late Richard Harris with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. But even with a new actor in the role, Cuarón essentially re-imagines the character as more jolly and quick-witted. Innumerable franchises have undergone reboots in the years since, so all these changes don't seem as significant now as they did then. But for a series that is partially built on maintaining a strict level of sameness, Cuarón pushes the envelope in challenging ways, and the shift in tone and aesthetic deepens the film’s emotional underpinnings.

A good example of this is how Hogwarts is depicted. I mentioned already that the music has a distinctly medieval flavor, and this carries over to the entire castle. In the first two films, the castle is more gothic with its imposing stone structures and chilly, fire-lit hallways. Here, the spaces within the castle—and more generally among the students—is more intimate. The corridors are smaller, brighter, and less domineering. Rather than feeling like a cold, lifeless locale, Hogwarts has its own personality in Prisoner of Azkaban. This can partly be attributed to the newly designed school grounds, which have rolling hills and boulders, a courtyard with trees and bushes growing outside the windows, and a creaky corridor bridge that look out onto the damp grounds. Even the Whomping Willow seems to be happier in this Hogwarts, as it delights in swallowing birds that cheerfully fly about the school grounds before meeting their doom among the tree’s dancing branches. I could list many details that give the castle and school grounds a personality, but to put it more generally, by making Hogwarts feel like it is a part of some kind of larger environment, it takes on a greater life.

Cuarón's eye for environments serves him well, from the snowy pathways of Hogsmeade village to the tall wooden towers of the Quidditch field where Harry flies through beating rain and lightning in pursuit of the golden snitch. While the changes to certain locales affect how they look, they more importantly alter how they feel. Moreover, the characters are now an integral part of the surroundings, often framed against and defined by them. Cuarón's deft use of foreground and background, in particular, aid in creating fully dimensional, expressive images in which both location and characters are carefully observed with a subtle balance of distance and intimacy.

Cuarón's aesthetic seems perfectly suited to the narrative, which focuses on Harry’s near-despondent state. Unlike most other stories in Rowling’s series, the plot of Azkaban is less driving and more focused on brooding dread. This provides Cuarón good opportunity to amplify Harry’s loneliness and uncertainty. He is no longer a tragic victim of growing up without parents, but is instead actively angry that he cannot have them in his life. The plot deals directly with the looming threat of a man named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is thought to have betrayed Harry’s parents and directly contributed to their murder by Lord Voldemort. Black has escaped from Azkaban prison and now presumably aims to hunt down and kill Harry at Hogwarts. In light of the rising threat, dementors—prison-keepers of Azkaban—are stationed outside the castle to intercept Black and bring him back to the wizard prison. These creatures levitate motionlessly, their shredded hoods caressed by the wind. They have the ability to drain the life out of anything around them. Despite not playing an active role for much of the film, their presence is chilling. Cuarón portrays them as deliberate, methodical, and lifelike but without fully seeming alive. As such, they become manifestations of Harry’s fears as well as his doubts and inadequacies.

Though the film’s focus rests with Harry’s growing state of melancholy, Prisoner of Azkaban aptly counters the despair with a sense of youth and joy. Harry has a blissful personal moment early on where he rides a winged beast above the castle and the lake. Flying high, he is afforded a brief reprieve from the problems that await him below. Gliding along the lake, Harry outstretches his arms and enjoys a momentary ecstasy that further punctuates his sadness. In another instance, Harry fumbles beneath his bed covers and performs spells while pretending to be asleep each time his uncle enters the room. Allusions to masturbation aside, this shows Harry using his wizard fantasy to retreat from the outside world. It is a simple, but delicate moment. The frequent hints of blossoming sexuality elsewhere are a nice touch as well, in particular because they are not made overt. There is an intimacy to the way the trio of young actors (Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) interacts. They have a comfortable rapport with each other and appear to naturally move and act in ways they don’t even quite fully understand.

As Prisoner of Azkaban moves toward its conclusion, it presents oddities ranging from shape-shifting animals to souls being sucked out of bodies. It's all pointedly absurd, but since an emotional anchor has already been so effectively established, Cuarón maintains course. And surprisingly, while the climactic time travel sequence is depicted with much humor, it also coldly signifies Harry’s inability to change time and rid himself of a memory he does not even have. Despite his ability to manipulate the means by which he experiences time, he cannot alter the memories and feelings left behind by its passage.

Ultimately, Harry’s journey stops short of delving into total gloom. The longing images and emotional undercurrents never coalesce, as we might wish. They instead allude to a darker road to come; indeed, Prisoner of Azkaban ends on a jubilant note with an image suggesting that even Harry’s rare excursions of fun are soon to exit his life. That the film offers little payoff for its brewing feelings of sadness and pain does not reflect negatively on it. While the movie is satisfying on its own, it serves a critical function in the broader scheme of things. Though the arc of the plot is barely progressed, there is an emotional core here that resonates back to the earlier entries and ahead to the future installments. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the film finds subtlety and rich aesthetic expressions not just within the established world of the series, but also within the aesthetic and narrative frameworks of popular cinema.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

In my commentary on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I observed that director Chris Columbus seemed to rely heavily on production values to create the sense of wonderment that was inherently absent in his images. How a film moves—from scene to scene, shot to shot—is not entirely dependent on massive sets, panoramic effects work, blaring symphonic music, and moody lighting. As I set out to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), the second and final entry from Columbus, I paid close attention to the director’s visual sensibilities and how they compared to the previous film.

To his credit, Columbus attempts to add deeper visual dimension to this sequel. His camera is more mobile; it hurdles, swipes, and dives every which way. This is clear in the opening shot, which starts high above the clouds, zooming past the title before maneuvering over the rooftops of suburban Britain and down to Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) window. It's smooth, but moves so quickly that it reeks of artifice. Columbus is in such a hurry to get to Harry’s window, as well as to whip around Hogwarts castle between scenes, that the film feels as though it’s playing on fast forward. Another trick Columbus saves for this go-round is the angled shot to signify mystery or villainy. However, like the camera movements in general, these dramatic tilts are so hasty and exaggerated that the effect is mostly hokey. Despite these flourishes, it quickly becomes evident that when he’s not swiping or tilting the camera around, Columbus’ approach is still the same: Action, Reaction. Repeat.

But let’s get into the story. This is, after all, the second installment in the series, so it shouldn't need to waste time with unending exposition and set-up. Alas, the opening passages of Chamber of Secrets are marred by unending exposition and set-up. We have various comings and goings, a few new characters (notably Kenneth Branagh, whose pompous Gilderoy Lockhart brings much-needed life to the film), and no sense that anything of interest will happen at all. Like Sorcerer's Stone, screenwriter Steve Kloves adapts the novel so faithfully that the film suffers. This, coupled with Columbus’ vapid directorial style, suggests that we'll be getting more of the same. But after taking its time getting the characters back to Hogwarts, Chamber of Secrets eventually displays an edge largely absent from the first film. There is a spirited sense of camp that matches well with the darker themes of racial purification and bigotry. Storytelling-wise it is still a mess, but this film has a sense of authorship that, however hokey, sets it apart from Sorcerer's Stone. Columbus' hand is more assured, particularly with action sequences. The final duel, for example, is surprisingly well-orchestrated: Harry takes on a giant snake that has been terrorizing the castle. When the serpentine beast comes into sight for the first time, it is a classic moment that recalls the joyous images of monster movies past. Unlike many CG effects, the creature has weight and dimension and carries with it a genuine sense of awe.

Another highlight finds Harry and Ron (Rupert Grint) in the Dark Forest surrounded by spiders the size of Buicks. Harry’s desire to know who opened the chamber of secrets bounces off Ron’s fear of the increasingly threatening spiders, which appear larger with each successive glimpse. The scene creates tension and builds to a strong payoff, with an army of spiders storming through the woods in pursuit of the heroes. This sequence, like the snake-dueling scene, shows Columbus’ direction coming alive. It has less dialogue, puts aside plot and seems to exist unto itself—a fluid series of images that blend the frightening and the absurd.

Taken together the pair of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets serve an explicit function—to provide a sterile visualization of Rowling's text. They don’t resonate beyond the relatively inoffensive entertainment they were designed to provide. As I noted in my commentary on Sorcerer’s Stone, both of the Columbus-directed entries feel insulated from the subsequent movies and are thus difficult to situate in relation to the overall arc. But if I am to adopt a more positive view, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets competently create a foundation of characters and settings and establish a world that has since been developed into a far more interesting one. Columbus’ baseline aesthetic may have been the right approach for providing such groundwork. I can say with confidence that, if nothing else, both films managed this task. They supplied the first images and impressions that, against all criticisms, have permeated the series and fostered its growth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 1: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

[Re-posting an article I've written for The House Next Door. It is the first of a series of articles looking at all eight of the Harry Potter films.]

Few film franchises have been more constitutive of the modern movie spectacle (and the digital age of cinema) than Harry Potter. The series is made up of eight movies spread evenly over a ten-year period, each a handsomely mounted production featuring a considerable cast of respected actors. With a collection of record-breaking bestsellers serving as a foundation, the consistently high box-office draw of the films was a foregone conclusion. Yet for non-loyalists of the book series, the adaptations' densely plotted stories and long running times all but demand a general knowledge of the broader story. This, coupled with the critic-proof nature of such a popular series, perhaps suggests that the Harry Potter films are not worthy of serious critical attention.

But with each new movie, my growing feeling is that these films may coalesce into something rare in the lexicon of sequels and franchises. Whereas so many movie series slowly or abruptly abandon ambitious storytelling and/or filmmaking in favor of selling the brand, the Harry Potter series is marked by what seems to be a simple and persistent earnestness, as if all the parties involved—from actors to studio heads—wanted to do good work. Moreover, the films also evolve stylistically and aesthetically, each installment facilitating stronger maturation of storytelling and character. The result is a compelling series that defies traditional stereotypes of blockbuster moviemaking.

In this week-long series of commentaries devoted to the Harry Potter films, I will hone in on notable aspects of each individual movie while maintaining a sense of the larger mosaic. Topics will range from thematic undercurrents and visual styles (I hope to show how the films develop a serious, even challenging visual language that both reflects and informs current traits of the modern blockbuster) and will also touch on more subtle or obscure details that deserve heightened focus. I am not interested in definitively deciding which parts are superior to others. I certainly am partial to certain installments, but the goal here is not simply to document the strengths and weaknesses of each respective film. This is a collection of personal reflections that will articulate why the Harry Potter series warrants more serious consideration.

Now that I’ve established the ground rules, let’s look at the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). It's pleasant enough as an introductory episode but is somewhat challenging to view 10 years later. That is to say, I found myself incapable of ignoring the glaring contrast between the film I was watching and the more recent Potter entries. The players and most of the locations are the same, but the look and feel is entirely different. Despite establishing the characters and world that eventually develops over the course of the series, both this installment and its follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, now seem isolated from what follows (perhaps in part due to the dramatic changes brought by Prisoner of Azkaban). Nevertheless, this film along with its immediate successor is fascinating to see again, perhaps because it is so curiously detached from the wonderment and magic it seeks to conjure.

When I first saw Sorcerer’s Stone, I was lock-step in agreement with Roger Ebert that it was “a red-blooded adventure movie, dripping with atmosphere, filled with the gruesome and the sublime.” For years I defended the film against its detractors and encouraged more serious-minded moviegoers to see it. And though I experienced some of the things in Ebert’s description while watching it again, these sentiments more resembled a kind of channeled nostalgia than something I was actively feeling.

Some of the most interesting passages occur early on. After a short prologue swashed in campy mystery (punctuated by a long-bearded wizard and pointy hat-donning witch rendezvousing on a foggy night), the film settles into a cartoonish mood with the introduction of our 11-year-old hero (Daniel Radcliffe) imprisoned in suburban England. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs in a bright home whose walls are coated with hideous wallpaper. But it isn’t long before an increasing number of owls overrun the neighborhood to deliver young Harry his acceptance letter/s to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The animated tone of these introductory scenes, while bordering on irritating, is weird enough to keep the film from sinking, but afterwards Columbus regrettably tones down the silliness, with only a handful of characters serving to liven up the affair.

The goal is seemingly to create an atmosphere of innocence, discovery, and—as Columbus never allows you to forget—magic. He wants you to know this with every epic shot and every repetition of the now-famous musical theme. But despite these proclamations, the general aesthetic is banal. Every character, every significant action, is framed with staggering exactitude, to the extent of becoming suffocating. It’s worth pointing out that the movies that serve most clearly as narrative and visual influences for Sorcerer's Stone—from The Wizard of Oz to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—have been framed and presented with similar directness. But with those works, the sense of the strange and incredulous saturate the viewer and unfold with less haste. By contrast, Columbus is always in a rush to get to the next point on the schematic: the next line of dialogue; the next shot; the next scene. This is a film charged with immersing the viewer in an entirely new world, and it is presented as if it were a soap opera. And when Columbus pulls back to give us the spectacle, the strain with which he attempts to elicit a big response is glaring. Consider, for example, the first reveal of the castle, accompanied by the requisite “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing in the musical score. It should be a monumental moment. All of the signifiers are present, but the effect is hollow.

The plot structure is worth looking at as well, because it unfolds in the exact opposite manner to how Columbus executes his visuals. The screenplay is so close to J.K. Rowling’s text as Columbus and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, have tried to cram in every detail of the book without much regard for the differences between cinema and literature. Thus, while the book reads briskly, the film’s depictions of our protagonists attending classes and walking the school halls prove tiring as the running time ticks up. Sorcerer's Stone is often aimless. The plot eventually comes into focus and deals with the Dark Lord Voldemort’s attempted rise back to power, but Columbus and Kloves are in no real hurry to unveil the narrative. Consequently, the film never quite builds enough momentum for the story to take hold. This nonchalance regarding plot development may account for Columbus’ maddening and problematic visual approach. Perhaps he felt it necessary to frame his compositions in the most straightforward, concise manner possible, given that the screenplay afforded him little time to slow down. This is a shame, because there is so much to relish in the far corners of the compositions, but Columbus often smothers them with framing and editing that are pedantic and a plot that meanders.

Despite these criticisms, there are moments—sights and sounds—that burst through to fleetingly realize the potential so clearly evident beneath the mostly lifeless aesthetic. These range from Harry’s first sight of the busyness of the brilliantly designed Diagon Alley; a quick shot of a goblin using magic to put Christmas ornaments on a tree; and a sublime encounter with a noble, soft-spoken centaur in the Dark Forest late in the film. Taken in the context of the entire series, these brief moments serve to remind how a more ambitious narrative and aesthetic approach would eventually blossom and flourish.