Monday, April 14, 2014

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


I have been exceedingly busy at the studio, filming scenes for my upcoming musical mobster epic, Goodfollies, which promises to wrap by Christmas. Things were running smoothly until today, when the soundstage was beset by a picket line of middle aged ladies in high dudgeon, brandishing signs and shouting curses at the production company. I asked Miguel, my driver, who they might be as he narrowly missed an ample matron in Lane Bryant pedal pushers wielding a bullhorn and he replied that they were representatives of a group called Mothers United against Sophomoric Humor or MUSH. These good ladies had apparently heard of our little film project and feel that its more comic moments are offensive to right thinking individuals and that production should be halted immediately.

I was not going to take this lying down. I immediately leapt from the back of the limo (to scattered applause from those nearby who recognized me) and grabbed the bullhorn, beginning an impassioned speech on how Goodfollies was a sensitive, realistic drama on the issues facing womankind in a changing world. Unfortunately Mel Gibson, who's shooting on the stage next to ours, picked that moment for a smoke break and I was nearly asphyxiated in the crush of rampaging hausfraus racing to seek autographs and photo opportunities. Not even an impromptu rendition of that old classic, Blame Canada, and a rousing tap break could regain their attention so I had Miguel take me somewhere where I could regain my composure.

As we passes the Burbank Metroplex, I felt an urge for a matinee so off I went to purchase a large popcorn, a diet Dr. Pepper and settled in for the four o'clock showing of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment of the cinematic adventures of everyone's favorite young wizard. I had seen the first film last year, and was somewhat disappointed in the results. It felt much more like a static filmed novel than a true film. This outing solves that problem, but is still a bit on the uneven side.

The film opens with young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) again stuck at home with his evil uncle (Richard Griffiths) and aunt (Fiona Shaw), seemingly forgotten by his new friends. At a particularly low moment, he is visited by a house elf, Dobby (a CGI creation who looks like the love child of one of the apple trees from The Wizard of Oz and a lemur). It turns out that Dobby is responsible for the cut off in communication as Dobby has overheard plots against Harry during the course of his duties and wants to keep Harry from returning to Hogwarts. Harry is, of course, rescued by his pal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his brothers in a flying Ford Anglia and soon finds himself on his way back to Hogwarts for his second year. There, he and Ron reunite with Hermione (Emma Watson) and are soon up to their broomsticks in mischief and mayhem.

Someone or something has opened the Chamber of Secrets, a hidden room at Hogwarts, and unleashed an ancient evil which has a habit of petrifying unsuspecting students. Harry and his friends have to sort this all out while dealing with the usual cast of characters, including a foppish blowhard of a new master, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who tries to use Harry's celebrity for his own ends. Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Snape (Alan Rickman), Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) are all on hand for the chase as are some new characters, including a pathetic brat of a ghost, moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson).

The film comes from the same creative team as the previous and they appear to have learned from their mistakes. While the original film was oddly flat and lifeless, this one bounces right along. It helps that they have little exposition to do (those unfamiliar with the book or the first film will be hopelessly confused) and can launch right into the adventure. Unfortunately, the paint by numbers screenplay often emphasizes some of the wrong elements. The film is quite long, at two hours and forty minutes, and much of the running time is devoted to some eye popping action sequences (a flight in the flying car, a quidditch (sort of an aerial rugby on broomsticks) match, a spooky forest full of giant spiders and a climactic battle against a monster). These long sequences mean that there is little time for the quieter moments and character interactions that make the novels so entertaining. The faculty characters are given little to do other than to stand around and look concerned. The minor student characters basically get one establishing shot each than have to fend for themselves. Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron's little sister and ultimately the key to the whole plot, is so underused that we're barely aware of who she is.

On the other hand, Chris Columbus, as director, has figured out the right tone for the series and the film moves in ways its predecessor sadly did not. I never once felt that the film dragged or became mired in inertia. He's helped by a spectacular production design and effects department who are always putting witty touches around the edges of the frame.

The three central child actors are all obviously growing up and entering adolescence. Daniel Radcliffe's face is changing and taking on adult planes. Rupert Grint is shooting up like a weed and there are shots in which its clear they are obviously trying to hide his height. This cast has only been signed for one more film (due to begin filming this April for release in 2004) and, at that point, will likely outgrow the roles. This onset of adolescence, is, however, not a detriment. In many ways, the novels are about the process of growing up and becoming an adult. Watching the actors face those physical changes makes the characters that much more real. The three have grown into the roles well. Emma Watson has less to do than in the first film, but isn't nearly as annoying. Rupert Grint has developed a lovely sense of comic timing and Daniel Radcliffe looks more comfortable in the role of hero.

The supporting cast remains strong. Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid continues to steal scenes. Jason Isaacs, as the villainous Lucius Malfoy, chews the scenery left right and sideways. Richard Harris shows his illness (which claimed his life several months later) but seems more secure in the role of Dumbledore than he did in the earlier film. The standout is Kenneth Branagh as the vainglorious Lockhart. He so deftly captures all of his pompous absurdities that every scene he's in overflows with energy.

The film is less than perfect, and at times plays more like an Indiana Jones installment than a Harry Potter, but it bodes well for the continued success of the series and I'm looking forward to the third installment.

Chimney travel. Invisibility lever. Invisibility cloak. Magic diary. Rogue bludger. Skelegro elixir. Howling mandrakes. Petrified cat. Bad plumbing. Excess cat hair. Lines of spiders. Wrongful accusations. Fire letter anagrams.

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