‘Harry’ gets scary as saga nears end

Harry Potter’s legions of wand-wavers needn’t fret about such retro-fitted minutiae as J.K. Rowling’s “Oh yes — and Dumbledore is gay.” (Not that she ever wrote that into the books, where he could just as well be a eunuch.) More importantly, they should consider the slow grinding down of the series on screen, now that five oversized movies have unfurled and two chapters still remain after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, new on DVD today.

Grinding down? Such heresy. Or maybe not. The fact is, these films too often run through the same tired paces while barely advancing the saga’s larger plot: Luke must face Darth Vader to the death — er, Harry must face Lord Voldemort to the death. In the meantime, gay or nay, we’ve got Dumbledore in Phoenix to smack down with the wicked one like Yoda zapping Chris Lee in a Star Wars prequel. Meanwhile, Harry and friends inch into adulthood with the rapidity of innocent 6th graders in the 1950s. Speaking of which, Hogwarts is about as diverse as such schools back then when it comes to characters with dialogue. (Oh yes — there’s a lovely Asian girl as a love interest for Harry this time. But she’s treacherous. Those Asians.) And in the end, next to nothing of consequence happens beyond mean administrators witlessly disputing Harry’s claim that Voldemort has returned while we wait — and wait — and wait — for the dark lord to actually appear on screen and for plot-advancement to occur.

But even though precious little goes on, the series’ trappings — from music to effects to production design — remain gloriously seductive here. And what does happen makes for the most serious-minded and often scary Harry of the five films so far.

Sure, wands, broomsticks and magic spells still seem like they belong in an ancient childfren’s fairy tale — or a Vegas act — not a monumental epic of  Good vs. Evil. But once you buy into Harry’s wondrous universe, its elements wear well, even when too-familiar themes become even more so (Harry as persecuted saviour, Part 97).

It’s also good to see the kids of Sorceror’s Stone all grown up — well, almost — and performing with more savvy and gravity, though Emma Watson remains a questionable casting choice as Hermione. I mean, has anyone in cinema history ever played one role for so long with the same incessant one-note blurting of each line, with no shadings or nuances? (Why say “We’ve got to be able to defend ourselves” when you can blurt “We’vegottobeabletodefendourselves”?) Her blurts have hurt me since Year one, casting a spell of agony while I wonder how the UK, of all places, couldn’t have produced better young actresses. (I’m sure it did — they just didn’t get cast.) But at least Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have grown nicely into their roles, and it’s refreshing to see veterans such as Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon sell the fantasy with persuasive conviction. (And, to be fair, one of Watson’s moments in the DVD’s 10 minutes of deleted scenes is strongly played, though without dialogue.)

Unlike previous installments, Phoenix has scant comic relief, beyond deleted scenes of poor Sybil Trelawney being awkward and pitiful, as played with agreeable hamminess by Emma Thompson. I don’t count the great Imelda Staunton as comic relief, since her Dolores Umbridge is all too real — and disturbing. We’ve all met this person: pious on the surface, but controlling, wickedly willful and E-VILLL in their dark heart.

Still, nothing of much consequence happens. It’s as if the film is in a waiting game — waiting for an uneven seven installments. Hey, it seems to say, there are two more books to adapt. Plenty of time to wrap it all up in Deathly Hallows, due in 2010, after next year’s Half-Blood Prince treads more water.

But tell me: Did the aforementioned Star Wars universe improve by doubling from three to six movies, or was it better when conceptualized and delivered as a mere trilogy? Harry’s movie total will be seven. That’s a looooong time to stretch out adolescence and young adulthood, especially in these impatient times.

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