Is a taste of honey worse than none at all?
Though I don’t consider myself a true Harry Potter fanatic, I admit that I’ve seen all eight of the films on their opening weekends. Sitting at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre yesterday with my Potter-obsessed daughter (already on her second viewing of the film), I did feel a little emotional saying a final farewell to our fearless trio, Harry, Hermione, and Ron. I think it was a highly satisfying send-off (note to film industry: isn’t it time to say goodbye to 3D?), but I still felt the frustration that’s been plaguing me since the second or third film—that the filmmakers were squandering the incredible adult talent they had at their disposal, especially among the older female stars.
On the one hand, I give them credit for hiring the A-list British actresses in the first place. Most of these women have strong theatre backgrounds as well as successful film careers and they bring nuances to these characters that must have made author J. K. Rowling squeal with delight. But why oh why do most of these dames barely get a line of dialogue in the later films, if they’re there at all?
Look, I realize that the filmmakers were doing their best to follow the complex and plot-heavy events of Rowling’s books as best they could, including what Emma Thompson called "a conveyor belt of characters"—anything less would have produced an insurrection from the legion of Potterphiles waiting breathlessly for each cinematic offering, their dog-eared copies of the novels clutched tightly in their Muggle hands. But oh, look at this list of my five favorite adult women in the series and tell me you wouldn’t appeal personally to J.K. Rowling to give them more screen time:
Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith). J. K. Rowling has said that she was picturing Dame Maggie Smith as she was writing Professor McGonagall so it’s only fitting that Smith was offered this role. In the early films, when Harry, Hermione, and Ron were young students, McGonagall had way more to do than later in the series, but any appearance she made in a film was a welcome delight. Her screen time in the final film may be brief but she is given some splendid business to do and provides an emotionally satisfying throughline. Minerva taught transfiguration at Hogwarts (her ability to turn into a cat was seen less and less as the series went on), acted as head of Gryfindor House, and ultimately, after Dumbledore’s death, became the school's Headmistress. Smith's Professor McGonagall was a vital hub in the series. Though often exasperated by the mischief-making of our trio, she was well aware of the bigger picture and in the end she was always there for Harry and his friends. The film that most prepared Maggie Smith for this role? Surely, her Oscar-winning performance in 1969 as an influential private school teacher in the wonderful "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," from which her famous line could be paraphrased to “Give me a wizard at an impressionable age, and he is mine for life!”
Molly Weasley (Julie Walters). As played by the wonderful Julie Walters, Mrs. Weasley is the strong, sassy, shlumpy, protective, and very loving mother we’d all love to have—indeed, she was the only nurturing mother figure Harry Potter knew throughout his childhood. Molly had seven children including Ron, her twins, Fred and George, and her only daughter, Ginny. She is a comforting presence in all of the films and, while I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t yet seen the film or read the book, let’s just say Mrs Weasley has a surprising role in the final denouement between Harry and Lord Voldemort. Again, without revealing too much, she also ends up "closer" to all three of our young leads than anyone else in the series. Julie Walters made a name for herself playing down-to-earth working class girls, not that unlike Molly Weasley (despite Molly’s magical powers), and is probably best known for playing the title role in "Educating Rita" on the stage and then on film opposite Michael Caine. She is one of the true hearts of the Harry Potter series.
Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson). I would watch anything that Emma Thompson is in and she must have had a field day playing jittery Sybill Trelawney with her gigantic coke-bottle glasses and ridiculous fright wig. As Divination Professor at Hogwarts, Sybil is a mess, but she was the one, after all, who first made “The Prophecy” about Harry Potter that set all of the events of the series into motion. When Dolores Umbridge fired her from Hogwarts several films back, both Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall, not Sybill's biggest admirers, came to her aid. Thompson, busy with other projects, only shot two days on the final film, but joked that the Harry Potter films employed every British actor in equity, including her sister Sophie who is in the final film. I am a huge fan of Thompson’s Oscar-winning version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” which featured a number of other Harry Potter players including Umbridge and Severus Snape.
Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). I don’t think I can find enough words of praise for Imelda Staunton’s chilling portrayal of Dolores Umbridge, a maddening bureaucrat from the Ministry of Magic. Staunton’s sickly-sweet, well-coiffed, pretty-in-pink cheerfulness was a tremendous counterpoint to her party loyalty, cruelty, and thirst for power. Despite her appearance, she was, in many ways, as sly and dangerous as the Dark Lord himself. Umbridge's machinations at Hogwarts echoed the unfortunate events occurring in U.S. education under the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act. Umbridge insisted on drilling the Hogwarts’ students in boring abstractions instead of allowing them to practice real magic, the same way our own government policies have emphasized drill-and-kill instruction over experiential hands-on learning. Imelda Staunton can do no wrong in my book, and it was a delight to see her reappear in Part 1 of the final film, still using her bureaucratic powers to stifle creativity and make everyone around her miserable.
Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Unlike Staunton’s seemingly demure and well-dressed villainess, Helena Bonham Carter’s fabulous turn as Bellatrix Lestrange owed nothing to subtlety. Can you say Bat Shit Crazy? Oh, how I adored Bonham Carter in this role. Sometimes I think the actress has been with her boyfriend Tim Burton for so long that she has started to look like a character from one of his films, as she does here as the Goth-like Lestrange (not that different from how she often appears at awards shows). In her Merchant Ivory days, Helena Bonham Carter starred with both Maggie Smiith and Emma Thompson, always playing the porcelain-skinned demure English lass, but lately she seems determined to shock audiences with her larger-than-life freak show roles. (On the other hand, I thought she was wonderful last year as the Queen Mother in "The King’s Speech," light years away from her maniacal Bellatrix.) Next up for Helena is a role in the film version of the 1960s supernatural soap, "Dark Shadows," again directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Johnny Depp. I’m in!
Holy horcruxes, what a group! Though the Harry Potter series has yet to snag a single Oscar nomination for its actors, these five women have racked up 15 Academy Award nominations on their own along with 4 wins. And they weren't the only pedigreed actresses in the films. That list included Gemma Jones as Hogwarts’ matron, Poppy Pomfrey; Miriam Margolyes as Professor of Herbology, Pomona Sprout; Helen McCrory as Bellatrix’s younger sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa Malfoy; Fiona Shaw as Harry’s horrid Muggles aunt, Petunia Dursley; and Miranda Richardson as conniving Rupert Murdoch-like reporter, Rita Skeeter. Seeing many of these women appear in the final film with little or no dialogue I wanted to propose a whole new series of films to Warner Brothers that would detail the back stories of each one of them in turn. My only question to the casting agents? What, you couldn’t find any room for Dame Judi Dench?
Also, a movie about wizards does well, or something...
Ron Weasley No More ...
With Emma Watson's Hermionie driving so much of the exposition in the 'Harry Potter' films, and Daniel Radcliffe in the title role to carry the burden of the storytelling, Rupert Grint's contributions as Ron Weasley might originally have seemed less important or functional -- best-friend duties, the occasional bit of comic relief. But the last laugh was Grint's -- his Ron not only provided real heart and humanity to the series but also served as the audience's stand-in, giving moments of pretention a good puncturing and giving moments of awesome power honest reactions. We spoke with Grint in New York City.
These films are always going to be a part of your life, but you have a last round of press for this film. When are they not going to be part of your schedule? When will they stop being something you think about every day?
Grint: Not sure, really. Of course there'll be (the) DVD after this, I'm sure. Eventually it's going to stop, and this really is going to be over. It's going to be a distant memory, which is quite hard to come to terms with. It has been my every day -- my every year has revolved around these films. Now they're over. It's a very weird feeling.
The producer was saying earlier that they went back and reshoot the epilogue because they couldn't quite get the makeup to look right. Did you find that to be the case?
Grint: Yeah, I looked hideous. I felt it there was a quite of a lot of processes to try different things, pulling what would really work. It was a very, very big thing to gradually watch yourself age in front of a mirror. I think the second attempt they got it balanced a lot better. It was a very strange thing to film, having kids and fat suits. Very, very weird. It was good fun.
Attending Comic-Con? Get tickets to see "Captain America"
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For details and a chance to snag them, visit our still-not-officially-launched Facebook page: http://facebook.com/msnmovies
'There's nowhere in the world I can go that isn't somehow touched by this film ...'
Of all the actors discovered for Harry Potter, none's faced a more complicated path from youth to stardom than Emma Watson. Originally ambivalent about success -- at one point stating she might leave the series, then trying to juggle a college education -- Watson seems to have settled into life as an actress and newly-minted glamour girl, even signing on as a new "face" for L'Oreal cosmetics. With her newly-shorn locks evoking memories of Jean Seberg or Mia Farrow, Watson met the press in New York in a feathered Givenchy dress to talk about the end of Harry Potter, global stardom and what's next.
On her last day and last shot for the series:
The last shot we did was this strange moment where we dive into the fireplace in the Ministry of Magic. It was actually for 'Part I,' not 'Part II.' Dan, Rupert and I, one by one, jumped onto these blue safety mats, basically; that was the shot, that was it. It seemed like a strange one to go out on, but David made the point that we were leaping into the unknown. It was a perfect metaphor for what we were about to go into. It's so funny, I can't tell you how I felt when we were shooting it -- I think I was numb.
On when it hit her the hardest:
It's so funny; this film obviously was incredibly challenging for me. It really pushed me as an actress, but at the same time, I was able to use a lot of my own genuine emotion that I felt about loss and all of it coming to an end. I was able to bring how I was feeling to the role. A perfect example of that is the scene when we stand on the bridge after the battle and before we flash forward. I remember really feeling exactly how Hermoine would be feeling, which is, 'Wow, this is all coming to an end; look at everything we've achieved.' The set was built looking out over Leavesden studios, which is where I grew up, essentially, and spent the last 12 years. Not much acting required, really. It was all there for me.
… and Why You Won't Be Seeing Him In 'Harry Potter … On Ice!'
With this week's release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" closing out the Potter saga, it feels like as good a time as any to remind ourselves that no matter how you feel about Christopher Columbus' skill set as a director, he certainly deserves praise for finding a set of child actors who, each and every one, grew to become actors -- especially Tom Felton, cast as bad seed Draco Malfoy. With his shock-blonde hair and sneer, Draco was a kid you loved to hate - even as later events in the series challenged both our view of Draco and his view of himself. We spoke with Felton in New York.
This film series will never be out of your life, but when's it going to be off your schedule in that you're doing this last press tour? When does it stop being something you think about every day?
Felton: It will be a while, I imagine. We've been looking forward to this last film for so long. Of course, there's going to be DVDs that come out of it, and I'm sure 3D, and 4D and "On Ice" and musicals and all the rest of it. It's something that I'm not looking to shake. I hope to be remembered -- all of us are going to be remembered, I think, for these characters for the rest of our lives. Obviously I'm hoping to develop things as well, but I'm definitely not looking to shake it any time soon.
When they announce 'Harry Potter on Ice,' you won't be stretching and lacing up?
Felton: I'm actually developing the choreography of that myself; it's my show. We're working on a few different things. I doubt I would -- I'm a terrible skater.
My favorite American films with a French twist
Feel like getting your Francophile on this Bastille Day without leaving home or squinting through subtitles? Here are my top five favorite American films set in La Belle France. Many of these crews never stepped foot on French soil, but no matter—Hollywood’s version of Paris was often more colorful and fun than the real thing.
So, mes amis, power up the flat screen, grab a baguette and a hunk of brie, open up that bottle of Bordeaux you’ve been saving, and have at it, Franco-American style.
An American in Paris (1951). This Oscar-winning MGM film earns the top position on many critics’ lists of their all-time favorite musicals. Eh, I’m more of a Band Wagon guy myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the considerable charms of this Vincente Minnelli-directed hit starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The Gershwin songs alone are worth the price of the rental and great supporting turns by Oscar Levant and Nina Foch only add to the fun. The plot is barely worth mentioning but the film is so sumptuous you can see why it won Oscars for set decoration, cinematography, and costume design among other wins, including a rare Best Picture nod for a musical (the film beat out both A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, which is pretty insane). It’s fun to see Paris as shot entirely on Culver City soundstages and if you speak French, you may cringe at some of the grammatically incorrect French dialogue—I guess newbie Leslie Caron was too timid to correct the actors. The 17-minute ballet at the end of the film is pretty amazing if you like that sort of thing—a real tour-de-force for Gene Kelly who won an honorary Oscar that year (his only one). S’wonderful!
Casablanca (1942). What’s that you say? This classic Michael Curtiz film is NOT set in France? Ah, but don’t forget the brief, hot, and perhaps unnecessary flashback scene in which we see Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa hopelessly in love in the City of Lights. It’s beyond obvious that the two lovers are sitting in a Warner Brothers soundstage with scenes of Paris projected behind them, but who cares? Bergman is at the height of her beauty here and the chemistry between the two leads is palpable. It’s in this Parisian sequence that we come to understand why Bogart is so bitter. He and Ilsa fell in love during the time when she believed her husband Laszlo had been killed while trying to escape from a German concentration camp. When she finds out that he is alive but ill, she rushes to his side, without giving Rick any explanation. Casablanca is also an appropriate Bastille Day treat because of the magnificent scene in which a bunch of ex-pats at Rick’s club drown out the Nazis with an emotional rendition of “La Marseillase.” Oy, that scene gets me every time.
Silk Stockings (1957). This film, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, is nowhere near as well known as An American in Paris, but for my money it epitomizes the best of MGM musicals made during that genre’s waning years. While there is plenty to complain about, this musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka is nevertheless a joy to watch from beginning to end. An American movie producer, played by Fred Astaire, is in Paris because he wants to hire a visiting Russian composer to score his latest film. He corrupts the resistant composer with a bevy of French dames as well as his brash American star played by the wonderful Janis Paige. Moscow hears of the composer’s activities and sends a humorless, workaholic envoy, Nina “Ninotchka” Yoschenko, to bring him home immediately. Okay, let’s be clear—Cyd Charisse is no Greta Garbo (who starred in the original film), her Russian accent is atrocious, and her singing voice is dubbed, but this is still my favorite of her films. No one can hold a candle to Cyd Charisse in the dancing department and her scenes with Astaire are among the best dance numbers ever captured on film. Charisse also gets to showcase her fabulous gams in a reverse striptease number that is so hot it barely squeaked by the 1950s censors. The film was made at the height of the Cold War and is such a propaganda piece I’m surprised Joseph McCarthy isn’t given a producer’s credit. But the Cole Porter music is heavenly, and Paris, aka Culver City, never looked better.
Two for the Road (1967). In my opinion, this Stanley Donen film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, is a near-perfect experience from beginning to end. The story (written by Frederic Raphael) details the complex 12-year relationship between Hepburn and Finney with all its highs and lows. The brilliance of the film is that we see the story of the two lovers unfold in a non-linear way—with scenes at the height of their love and attraction juxtaposed with painful moments from their crumbling marriage. The film takes place almost entirely in France, during the couple’s multiple road trips in that country. Watching Two for the Road when I was younger, I always wanted to 1) drive a roadster all over the French countryside, and 2) run screaming from all relationships, but today I see it as a real love story, even with all its heartbreak and pain. Look for an appearance by a young and gorgeous Jacqueline Bissett as Hepburn’s girls choir pal, and a brilliant turn by William Daniels and Eleanor Bron as the permissive parents of the most obnoxious kid since The Bad Seed. I guess this is technically an English film but with Donen as the director I’m keeping it on my list of American Bastille Day treats!
French Postcards (1979). I know, I know—it’s a ridiculous stretch to call this all-but-forgotten film a “classic,” but I have personal reasons for including it on my list. I was going to school in Paris the year French Postcards (which is about American students going to school in Paris) was made so it almost feels like watching a home movie of my year abroad—in fact, several American students from my program were cast as extras. The film was written and directed by Willard Huyck, who is much better known for writing American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (with his wife Gloria Katz), and who would go on to murder his directing career with the infamous Howard the Duck. Debra Winger and Mandy Patinkin both had bit parts in this film and the stars included Blanche Baker (Carroll Baker’s daughter), David Marshall Grant (most recently the producer of Brothers and Sisters), and Miles Chapin (who I remember as Beverly D’Angelo’s square boyfriend in Hair). The French cast was far more prestigious, from the lovely Valérie Quennessen, who sadly died in a car accident at the age of 31, to the legendary Jean Rochefort who is still going strong at the age of 80. Also starring in the film was the great Marie-France Pisier, who died this year at the age of 66. The beautiful actress was in several of Truffaut’s early films as well as the popular Cousin, Cousine, but her attempts to break into American films were less successful, from the trashy The Other Side of Midnight to the mini-series Scruples. If nothing else, French Postcards details many of the stereotypes that French and American people have of each other and it would be an interesting curiosity piece to watch on this holiday…if you can find it!
But wait, there are so many other films I’ve left out that would be perfect for your Bastille Day film festival. What about Charade and To Catch a Thief? How about Gigi and Daddy Long Legs? Or even Moulin Rouge or Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris? Oh well, you get the idea. Bonne chance!
-- Danny Miller, Los Angeles
Part 2 of Our First Look at 2012's Could-Be Blockbuster with Director Andrew Stanton
In Part One of our sneak peek at "John Carter," director Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's pulp adventure "A Princess of Mars" coming to theaters in March 2012, we shared some of Stanton's thoughts before showing footage. With the lights brought down low -- and our expectations raised up high -- we then got to see four sequences. In the first, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has clearly just arrived on Mars, first adapting clumsily to Mars' lower gravity, stumbling across a nest of Thark eggs and then being approached by paternal full-grown Tharks -- including Willem Dafoe's Tars Tarkas, with Dafoe's voice issuing from a 10-foot tall, six-limbed green alien.
The second shot, while shortest, was one of the most intriguing, as Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and Thark Sola (Samantha Morton) confronted each other with guns drawn -- and then conveyed a certain unity of purpose with just facial expressions and gestures. It was a brief moment, but you could still feel Morton's performance behind the CGI creation -- imbuing pixels with personality. Then we saw a clip of Carter and Dejah Thoris talking selflessness and strategy -- with an angry Dominic West as a Martian warlord for some palace intrigue. We next got a gladiatorial combat sequence where Carter and Tarkas have to face down a giant six-limbed Martian White Ape for the amusement of some Thark despot -- and while Carter's low-gravity bounds and jumps were impressive, and the White Ape a fearsome beast, the sense of humor and adventure in the clip -- with a perfect last line that both raised the stakes and got a laugh -- was maybe the best part. Then we saw the trailer -- reportedly attached to this Friday's upcoming "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," and online this Thursday -- and which conceals far more than it reveals, with a moody Peter Gabriel version of The Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" setting a ominous-yet-epic tone.