Previously on Harry Potter: Big bad Voldemort steals the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's grave while Harry mourns the loss of his wee elf friend Dobby and begins his search for the remaining Horcruxes.
If that recap leaves you with hazy memories of last year's Deathly Hallows - Part 1 you may want to pop in the DVD before taking on the Harry Potter franchise's grand finale Deathly Hallows - Part 2. The eighth film in the series doesn't pull any punches demanding your knowledge of the saga's previous events and crescendoing off a foundation of character and connection built over a decade of cinematic excursions. That's not a fault -- Deathly Hallows - Part 2 serves hardcore fans and dedicated patrons of the franchise alike bouncing elegantly back and forth between explosive action and emotional conclusions. At this point that's what matters.
Whereas Deathly Hallows - Part 1 took Harry Hermione and Ron on a gritty race through the real world Part 2 brings the trio back to their home base Hogwarts School of Magic and Child Death where their colleagues and professors find themselves defending it against the empowered Voldemort and his band of Death Eaters. Similarly to Transformers: Dark of the Moon Deathly Hallows - Part 2 spends most of its run time following various established characters as they navigate the epic battle. Unlike the clunky erratic action of TF3 director David Yates manages to execute the sequences in Potter with bravado making sure we give a damn every time Potter discovers a secret from the past blows a Death Eater out a window or glances upon one of his closest friends lying dead on the floor.
For all its otherworldliness Potter is and always has been a human story one that puts its characters before spectacle. But when Yates and his team of FX wizards do unleash their bag of spells on the screen they do it with a very BIG bang. Deathly Hallows - Part 2's scope is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy bringing everything from trolls to spiders to animate statues into the wizards' massive assault. The franchise hasn't seen action on this scale before but Yates never misses a beat or opportunity to dazzle with visual eye candy. Turning the crumbling of Hogwarts castle into a riveting poignant experience -- true magic.
Once again Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint and a cast of veteran British thespians deliver the necessary gravitas to anchor Potter's fantastical elements in reality. With everything finally on the line in Deathly Hallows - Part 2 each performance is at its best and Radcliffe steps up to the plate to make his final showdown with Voldemort one to remember. He spends most of the movie covered in dirt encrusted blood on his face and a harrowing sense of death behind his eyes. Heavy material but Radcliffe pulls it off.
Few franchises have the chance that Harry Potter has been fortunate enough to receive to follow the same familiar faces through years of ever-complicating story. Thankfully Deathly Hallows - Part 2 doesn't squander the opportunity. The saga swells with a triumphant final act one that never forgets why people love the movies in the first place. The adventure the awe the comedy the thrills the people the places the things -- those are the elements that make Harry Potter grand and they return in perfect form once more to say good-bye.
Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly a not-uncommon practice in this town) but it wouldn’t have been without merit. At 759 pages Rowling’s source novel is said to be a rather dense work plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?
I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 though certainly a decent film clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book’s proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2 slated to open approximately six months from now is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.
As the film opens the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials presided over by the Grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as "undesirables" and “mudbloods” in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.
As the only viable threat to Voldemort’s dominion Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled "Undesirable No. 1" by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic he's is forced to go on the lam where he labors along with Ron and Hermione to solve the riddle of Voldemort’s immortality.
For those not well-versed in Rowling’s source material the film’s opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead we’re left racking our brains trying to recall who they were and how they figured in the plot.
Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina) the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole Inception) the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or "disapparate") away from danger etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves both franchise veterans arguably amplify them.
What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry Ron and Hermione who along with the actors who play them have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:
As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.
Against all odds a lightweight Broadway musical made up of ABBA songs and an innocuous storyline has become a worldwide phenomenon still running and selling out wherever it plays. Now it has been given the big-screen treatment filmed on location in the Greek Isles. The story basically remains the same (and oddly similar to the 1969 Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell) about a young girl Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on the eve of her wedding. She has decided to find out who her real father and so she invites all three of her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) ex-loves to the wedding. With the arrival of Sam (Pierce Brosnan) Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth) all hell breaks loose as Donna must not only deal with the impending nuptials but also the re-emergence into her life of three very different--and now older former flames. Helping her through the ordeal are her two best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and the seductive Tanya (Christine Baranski). All this of course is just an excuse to break out into song every five minute with all of the major ABBA hits used to move the story along--or just stop it dead in its tracks. Either way it’s a toe-tapping experience apart from every other film we’ve seen this summer. With a cast not exactly known for their musical skills this version of Mamma Mia is indeed a roll of the dice which has paid great dividends for the most part. With few exceptions (we’ll get to Pierce’s warbling in a moment) the entire cast shines and delivers--beginning with Streep who is simply a force of nature. She’s sensational and can she ever sing! Her big 11-o’clock-number “The Winner Takes It All ” which she belts out against the stunning scenery of Scopelos (where much of the movie was filmed) will remind you of Barbra Streisand’s triumphant anthem “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. Streep is the real deal--Hollywood’s real hidden singing and dancing queen. You just have to wonder why she hasn’t gotten more musical opportunities in film. Baranski and Walters are delightful sidekicks and each belt out their own numbers in style. Seyfried (HBO’s Big Love) is a great discovery a charmer who keeps the film grounded and unveils a natural singing voice. As for the guys both Skarsgard and Firth get through their limited vocals with seeming ease and have a great camaraderie as does Brosnan--acting-wise at least. His musical numbers while on key exhibit a voice that probably isn’t going to top the charts anytime soon but you have to give him credit for swinging er singing for the fences. Despite his iffy pipes he and Streep display such great chemistry it would be nice to see them re-team somewhere down the line. It’s not often Hollywood offers a Broadway show’s creative team the chance to repeat their stage success but give credit to Universal for bringing in the original director Phyllida Lloyd writer Catherine Johnson and producer Judy Craymer. Consider the fact that they are all over 50--just like three of their key female stars--and you have a situation in which youth-obsessed Hollywood has reversed course--all for the good. Although Mamma Mia is not shot with the kind of razzamatazz style a Rob Marshall (Chicago) might have brought Lloyd’s feature film debut hits the mark with zeal enthusiasm and the gift of fun. It’s a good-time movie with a refreshing lack of pretense and makes it one of the most purely entertaining musical events ever to hit a motion picture screen. Lloyd has re-captured on film the unabashed joy of the theatrical experience and staged it in one of the most beautiful places on earth. If it’s a little disconcerting to see all these older stars belting out a Swedish pop group’s greatest hits it’s also probably just what audiences living in these troubled times need. Our guess is you’ll want to line up and see it again the minute it ends.