Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Darkest Art: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Written in November 2005. Four years of distance has not made Mike Newell's Potter film any more coherent or compelling. Side-by-side comparison with the maddening Order of the Phoenix, however, might gain Goblet of Fire some points. In any case, feel free to wince all over again, as now-irrelevant notes evaluate how well Goblet does or does not set up Phoenix. End result was: it didn't matter.

These notes were written for a small audience of friends already familiar with the novels. So they buzz through information that readers know, take the form of pro/con checklists, and are aimed to evaluating the success of the adaptation process.


Plotio: Harry Potter, Magical Childe, just wants to get a date to the dance, and make it through the Tri-Wizard Tournament international witch contest without getting smashed by a dragon. But his nemesis Lord Voldemort (previously a face stuck to the back of a head) has a scrawny little body now, and is grumpier than ever!

Every-Favor Spoilers ahead! Books! Movies! Unwritten books and unfilmed movies! ALL SPOILED!

In an early scene of Goblet of Fire the Weasleys, Diggorys, and Harry trudge of a hill in the British countryside at sun up. Director Mike Newell's camera speeds up the scrubby terrain and swings around a lone discarded boot, perched at the top. Newell finds a distinct and fitting look for the film, shooting everything with a sad autumnal golden haze. That dirty boot, back-lit by the cold orange morning sun, revealed like it's the most important, beautiful thing in the world, is the best part of the film.

It's not just a great moment: it's mostly downhill from there.

Look guys, it's the fan-favorite novel. It's 734 pages long. Something was bound to snap. Voldemort's eyes are not red in this movie. But Daniel Radcliffe's aren't green, so whatcha gonna do?

If Chris Columbus' Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets are middling movies and acceptable (and plodding, and rote) adaptations, and Alfonso Cuarón's Azkaban is a great film and decent adaptation, Goblet of Fire is a confused, uneven movie and a singularly poor adaptation. That is the short of it.

The trouble doesn't lie in the inner disgruntled fan of all Rowling readers ("oooh, I wanted to see Charlie Weasley!" "What!? Both Patil twins in Gryffindor?"). The trouble is that the artless gutting of the book consists of lopping out large sections of story, even when they are relevant to the plot. It's a grand story badly told.

Azkaban, in its breathless rush not to be as stodgy as the first two pictures, fumbled a couple opportunities. For example, that notoriously unscratched itch, the plot hiccup in which Harry never learns that the Marauder's Map was created by his father and friends. It's a detail that could have been handled with a single throwaway line of dialogue, and greatly cements a number of story elements. Most importantly it strengthens Harry's bond with his father. It is one thing to long for and idolize an absent father, and another to feel connected because he was just like you and would approve of your specific mischief. It is also a concrete moment of James assisting Harry from "beyond the grave" before the finale when Harry's Patronus takes the form of his dead father. It's variation and theme moment of some power in the novel, lost in the film.

But you ain't seen nothin' compared to Goblet of Fire.


At their core the Harry Potter novels are classical gothic mysteries, and this is a primary gear that makes them go tick-tock. Mike Newell grasps the basics of character relationships, handles the soap opera of the romances well, and understands (if only occasionally demonstrates) the humor of the universe. What he cannot do in any way, and what Rowling excels at, is lay out clues, tease with red herrings, show people investigating, and satisfyingly solve a mystery. The mystery in Goblet of Fire is so hopelessly botched it doesn't register as intrigue.

The trio doesn't solve the mystery of weird-ass new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody's real identity, as they do in the book. Instead, they are helplessly yanked along through the story -- giving Ron and Hermione zero function in the Tri-Wizard or mystery plots -- until the Polyjuice Potion just happens to run out at an inopportune moment and the villain spills his guts. It's a Big Lebowski gag: you didn't solve the mystery, someone just explained it to you.

In the smart and subtle Azkaban, Cuarón could throw out clues you didn't notice until you needed them. In a personal favorite scene, Harry stood in the school clock tower, glowering down over the grounds, foreshadowing the revelation of the Time Turner. In Goblet we are treated to Mad-Eye Moody swigging out of a red-flagged MYSTERIOUS flask after SUSPICIOUSLY making sure no one is watching, and Harry wondering aloud what it could contain, all replete with seemingly unmotivated musical stings and conspiratorial close-ups.


Severus Snape
It is one thing to streamline a detail-crammed novel for the screen, and it's another to end up with an undercooked chop suey of a screenplay in the process. No audience needs a 10-hour Harry Potter movie (though we may "want" one), but this script bears a whiff of "Uh... We Don't Have Time for This." I'll leave it to the unappeasable literalists to complain about what they missed, but here's what does and does not work for me in the film:

Though the opening at the Dursley's is one of the funniest of such episodes in the books, the visits to Privet Drive have begun to feel like chores in the films. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. Bypassing the Dursleys seems harmless, but causes unseen damage to Order of the Phoenix, which offers answers to "why would Harry go home every summer?"

Mercifully, the book's weakest subplot -- Hermione's crusading House Elf liberation society, SPEW -- is excised. Along with it, some assistance offered to Harry by House Elves is gone. This is pretty seamless story-repair in Goblet, but a regrettable result that none of the novels' cumulative thoughts about race issues are going to bear out properly. This through-line climaxes in Phoenix, where Harry understands the true meaning of the fountain in the Ministry of Magic, depicting all the magical races in a Free to Be You and Me pose: the wizarding world is riddled with hypocrisy, fear and denial. [Note: Hey, what'dya know, the SPEW plot truly pays off in Deathly Hallows - good luck to Mr. Kloves, who one presumes is kicking himself right about now. ] A long list of great Potter moments involve these themes -- from Dobby's Emancipation Sock-lamation, to Firenze the centaur's arc in Phoenix -- and the films' inability to plumb these depths is beginning to show. Beyond that, they're simply going to need Winky the Elf in Order of the Phoenix. They're going to need Percy Weasley as well, but hey, thank God we had time for six minutes of Moaning Myrtle looking at Harry's balls in the bathtub.

Rita Skeeter (here: Miranda Richardson) as Rowling writes her, is not a particularly funny character -- apart from the Dursleys and Gilderoy Lockhart, most of her broader caricatures are grating and off-key -- but in the novel Skeeter serves a story function. In the film, she's been deprived of her ultimate fate and most of her power to get under Harry's skin: she's neither punished (literally, or in a meaningful dramatic sense), nor revealed as an animagus. This might be fine, but her storyline is meticulously set up even as the character has been rendered totally superfluous.

Extremely long build-up to the Quidditch World Cup, including fully animated fireworks... and then a smash cut away the second before we can see any of the match. The World Cup itself may not be vital to this tale, but it's doubtful there's an argument why dancing leprechaun fireworks are more important than the pleasure value of finally seeing pro-level Quidditch.


Remus Lupin
The Tri-Wizard Tournament tasks are mostly well-mounted special effects sequences, and the movie's penchant for showing off is appropriate here. But Rowling uses the tasks as far more than just action set pieces, filling them with drama both psychological and symbolic. It is fair to wonder if we're so very short on time why in the first task (dragon egg-stealing) Harry and the Horntail end up clawing along the edge of the Hogwarts roof. The rooftop fingernail-hanging chase is the hack screenwriter's go-to idea of big excitement, and this truth is not diluted by integrating a dragon. Ponder also why in the second task (underwater friend-rescuing), Harry seems more interested in saving a little girl he doesn't know than Hermione. Certainly the thrilling third task, a maze full of Blast-Ended Skrewts and... wait, no, it's a maze full of wind. Wind. I shit you not, friends. Mike Newell and Steve Kloves thought it would be cooler to have wind blow through the maze than a sphinx.

Hey, don't shoot the owl. I just deliver the parchment.

Perhaps it's for the best though. The series has always had creature-design issues (see under Troll), but the beautiful work on the Azkaban hippogriff set a bar so high it looks like even Peter Jackson's King Kong is going to have its work cut out for it. QwikList: beginning with a dodgy CGI snake, the dragons are acceptable and unimaginative, the mermaids are weird, Desiccated Voldemort is cute, and grown-up Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) looks like Modulock from Masters of the Universe.


The Courtship of James Potter & Lily Evans

All wand-carriers, be prepared to explain most, if not all, of the Voldemort plot to your friends. Why does Harry find Barty Crouch knocked out or maybe dead or maybe drunk in the woods? Why is Hagrid taking the kids into the woods in that scene anyway? Why do we cut from finding an important government official dead in the forest to an unrelated scene with no further mention of the incident? What's prior incantatum? If there's no way to bring back the dead, why did Harry see and communicate with his dead parents? What is Crouch Jr.'s fate? Oh, and as long as the movie is called Goblet of Fire, any textual evidence of how Harry's name got in that rascally flame-cup? No? Sorry folks, get a library card.

Story trouble aside -- it's mostly Steve Kloves' Swiss cheese screenplay's fault -- Mike Newell has no affinity for or personal take on this material. Far surpassing even Four Weddings and a Funeral's cheek-pinching preciousness, Goblet of Fire is so whimsical you can feel the sweat-beads, it's whimsying so hard.

Painfully unfunny visual buttons, one-liners and slapstick blows punctuate literally dozens of scenes. The worst offender is probably an otherwise well-tuned scene about George and Fred giving Harry and Ron pointers on getting Yule Ball dates, as Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman) is overseeing a Potions exam (uh, what class is this where fourth-years and sixth-years are sharing tables?). Rickman spends the scene rolling his eyes, huffing, and, in total out-of-character lack of decorum, smacking the boys over the heads. The punchline for this scene is too much of a dud to recount. Snape is too busy hitting students to remember that he can take House points from them. Awkward and beat-too-long too, is an uncomfortable scene with Moaning Myrtle in the prefect's bathtub (Merlin's beard, why did Chris Columbus let Shirley Henderson use that voice? Now we're stuck with it for seven movies!). The film's approach to comedy violates the performers' natural, easy charm and runs counter to the sense of humor already integral to the books.


None of this holds a candle to the moment when the Weird Sisters appear. The wizard rock band, portrayed by Jarvis Cocker, members of Pulp, Radiohead and others, play original pop songs at the Yule Ball. The Ball, Prof. McGonagall has just assured us, is a long-standing formal tradition, to be taken seriously. Don't believe it for a second. The embarrassing songs couldn't be more inappropriate or rupture this fantasy world more if the Weird Sisters were "Weird Al" Yankovic. In this pivotal moment, Newell strip-mines the series' integrity.

Newell just doesn't seem to get the wizarding world. He unveils every magical event with a flourish and a trilling musical sting and someone's jaw dropping in glass-eyed wonder. Harry himself can barely believe that -- get this -- the inside of a tent is larger than it appears outside. Not only was Dr. Who not allowed at the Dursley's, but Harry has apparently forgotten that he is a wizard, has been for four years, and that most of the people he knows are wizards. Demonstrating again that Azkaban was a special gift that may not be repeated, recall how Cuarón's camera would pan past throw-away magical gags (moving photos, self-pouring teakettles, the Leaky Cauldron being invisibly tidied-up) like they were no big deal. In this world of everyday magic, they aren't a big deal.

That Newell blows it so very badly most of the time makes it surprising and more frustrating when he gets it right. The new magical device of portkeys is set up with confidence (though in action they look like standard CG squish-n-swirl). The mechanics of the pensieve are a little muddy in explanation, but play out well. A marvelous scene in the DADA classroom gracefully explains the Unforgivable Curses. What could be a confusing or encyclopedia-entry exposition scene -- recall the Rules of Quidditch sequence in Sorcerer's Stone -- explores not just the rules of the curses, but their allure and moral complications, investigates Moody's character, and has a chilling turn in tone from laughter to horror as the class realizes the implications of the Imperius Curse.

There are a couple of smart detail shifts away from the text, like Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) giving Harry the gillyweed he needs to compete in the second task. Neville is one of Rowling's most elegantly written characters, and his increased role in Goblet is welcome and will make his growth in Phoenix even more profound. But the impact of revelations about the Longbottom family are nil here, another miscalculation so gross your muggle friends won't even notice the plot point unless you tell them. Kudos to Mr. Lewis anyway on his sweet performance. Neville's preparations and late return from the Yule Ball are the first time a supporting Hogwarts student has registered as a complex human being. Now if only he didn't have those horrid fake teeth.

Daniel Radcliffe is a superb Harry, sincere and churning, conjuring up with conviction any number of nameless emotions. Another of the God-they-nailed-it scenes takes place in the empty owlery, as Harry asks out Cho Chang (Katie Leung). It's perfectly staged, and beautifully played. It's not just a scene about having a crush on someone and being turned down. From Harry, through rejection, there's that slightest twinge of creeping arrogance: what do you mean someone's asked you? I'm Harry Potter. And from Cho that great response: sorry. Really and truly sorry, but... sorry. This lays exciting groundwork for the characters' heart-rending and painful scenes in Phoenix.


Cho's selection of enormous leg-warmers in the film is a startling character choice.

Radcliffe and Rupert Grint are both improving vastly, giving funny and nuanced performances. It's Ron's indignation in his fight with Harry that brings his family's underdog fire back into the story. It's Harry's reaction on returning from Hell with another child's body at the end of the Tournament that literally brings tragedy home. Emma Watson mostly overacts, wriggling her eyebrows around and stuttering like Newell thinks he's directing Hugh Grant. She redeems herself thoroughly in the Yule Ball scenes, as Hermione finally cracks her nerd-chic facade and tells Ron the worst thing he can hear. And really, it's not her fault Hermione has nothing to do in this movie.

Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps) are hysterical this go-round, though Kloves has missed something key about the characters: their inventiveness and ambition. They are self-confident and anti-authoritarian jokers, but the film makes them out as total goofs, and there is no indication that they can become triumphant self-made men. Anyway, it's nice to see them register as people.


For the rest of the cast: Robbie Coltrane is still a pitch perfect Hagrid (sadly his relationship with Madame Maxime is robbed of its dimension of racial self-acceptance by the whitewashing screenplay). Michael Gambon continues to surpass to Richard Harris' perfectly acceptable but uncomplicated take on Dumbledore. Gambon plays more to the flickering benevolent madness in those reassuring eyes. You can't be the most powerful wizard in the world without being a little scary.

Clémence Poésy as Fleur Delacour is a lovely non-entity, and so, far as the movie is concerned, entirely human. The entrance of the ladies of Beauxbatons is fine enough (uh, where'd the boys go? No matter), but again, Ron's infatuation Fleur goes nowhere but fizzling punchline. David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr. is godawful, his spastic, performance tipping off the solution to the final mystery in the stroke of one mannered facial tic repeated ad nauseum. He gives Timothy Spall as Wormtail a run for most obnoxious overstated acting.

Ralph Fiennes does the best under the circumstances that he possibly can. Voldemort as he appears in this story, while sadistic and gross is not scary. The dialogue is arch; the motivations are puerile and uninteresting. The character remains this way after Half-Blood Prince, where his damaged soul is out in the open air, but in the meantime, we must deal with this cardboard boogeyman.

Brendan Gleeson's take on Mad-Eye Moody is miles away from the potential locked in the part, and plays cartoonish and dopey. Rowling's Moody is scary and gruff, undomesticated and dangerous, but commanding of respect: he's smarter, tougher and worldlier than you. The part is begging for Tom Waits or Ron Pealman. Gleeson is certainly dirty-looking, but there's no hint that he's the roughest toughest meanest hombre in the aurer biz. The costume, however, is top-notch!


Costume design has always been remarkable in the Potter films, and it's one of the areas where Goblet is still distinguished. However, the continued decrease in school uniforms is distressing. The set decoration is suffering here too. These films have never been particularly good at conveying the feeling that Hogwarts is a functioning school, but in Goblet the House colors are almost nowhere to be seen.

The movie ends on a flat note with the trio promising not to write each other over the summer. The Durmstrang and Beauxbatons transports depart in pretty special-effects ways. And we may realize that the best part was a kid getting turned down for a date in a dung-covered owl roost. The best part was a raggedy boot sitting on a hill. Rowling's is a dingy, battered, rainy, foggy, sooty, sad and beautiful world. And Mike Newell only gets it in his muggle-grip for a few moments.


Sirius Black

1 comment:

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