Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who's That Witch?

I haven't been back to see Harry Potter 7 again. Don't worry, I'm not that obsessed. But I've been thinking about the time I went to see one of the HP films, I think it was #5, with a friend who had no idea what it was all about. He hadn't read the books. He hadn't seen any of the previous movies in the series. So he was completely at sea, and I spent most of the movie hissing answers to his whispered questions because, as a fan of the series may be surprised to learn, the movies aren't very self-explanatory. If you don't already know who's who and what's going on, you're not going to find out by watching the movies. They leave too much out, much of which only a true fan is going to figure out.

So, here is a quick blow-by-blow of Harry Potter 7.1 was I remember it, explaining the questions a Harry Potter "virgin" might be afraid to ask in a theater full of fiercely focused fans.

The first person you see, in an extreme close-up, is a politician making a speech to the press in the atrium of a really bizarre public building. This building is Britain's Ministry of Magic, containing the government offices for all things-magically related, because in Harry Potter's world witches and wizards are a significant (though secret) part of the population. The guy having his picture taken while he assures everyone that their "ministry is strong" is Rufus Scrimgeour, the present Minister for Magic, who ought to have been in the 6th movie but wasn't, so this is everyone's first look at him. Unfortunately, you won't know who he is unless you piece together references other characters make to him later in the film, by which time you have no idea who they're talking about, so aren't you glad I told you?

In the next scene, we see Harry Potter watching a fat man, a skinny woman, and their burly son loading up their possessions and getting ready to leave. These folks are the Dursleys: Harry's mean Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Cousin Dudley, who are fanatical Muggles (i.e., they refuse to believe in magic, even though Harry has lived with them since his parents died when he was one year old). They've never been anything but a pain to Harry, but they're all the family he's ever known, and their house his only home, so we see him taking bittersweet leave of it... including the cupboard under the stairs, which served as his bedroom until he turned 11 and started going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.

Intercut with this scene is the sad bit where a girl--Harry's brainy school friend Hermione Granger--shoots her Muggle parents with an "obliviate" charm. This erases all their memories of her, which is hard on Hermioone because she likes her parents. Even though they are dentists. She never discusses this with Harry, but perhaps you'll think of it later when the third member of the "trio," Hermione's boyfriend Ron Weasley, gives her the choice, "Are you coming with me or staying with him?" You'll know what she has already sacrificed for Harry, and thus what a bastard Ron is for giving her such a choice.

Then there's a scene with a bunch of bad people seated around a very long table in a secluded manor house. The house belongs to the Malfoy family, an "old blood" magical family, which in the world of witches and wizards counts as old money (which, as it happens, they have too). The really freaked-out looking dude with the long white hair is Lucius Malfoy, the head of this family of aristocratic creeps. His wife Narcissa is the haughty brunette with the white skunk-stripe through her hair. The slim, handsome, white-blond youth seated beside him (also scared witless) is his only son Draco, who has been antagonizing Harry since the day they both started at Hogwarts. Remember this later when Draco's bat-guano-crazy Aunt Bellatrix (you'll know who I mean) forces him to look at Harry Potter and tell her if it's Harry Potter. Try to figure out the message Draco's eyes send to Harry while he stalls for time.

Also at the table are a guy with a flat nose with snake-like slits for nostrils. He is Voldemort, the evilest wizard that ever lived--so evil that he's not really human any more. As the movie goes on you're going to hear a lot of talk about horcruxes, which Harry is trying to find and destroy. These horcruxes are pieces of Voldemort's soul, which the Dark Lord sliced off by murdering someone and then embedded in a physical object, such as the locket that so much of this film has to do with. As long as that object survives, Voldemort cannot be wholly killed. So, to end Voldemort's reign of terror, Harry has to find all the horcruxes and destroy them. The trouble is, three have been accounted for so far (the locket in this movie, a ring and a book in the previous films), but there are at least three more that Harry hasn't even found yet by the end of this film.

Voldemort's pet snake is Nagini. You first see Nagini curled up next to a long-haired wizard whose politician instincts make Voldemort laugh. This guy, who has never been seen before in this series, is Pius Thicknesse. He becomes the Minister for Magic after Voldemort's "Death Eater" followers sack the Ministry and kill Scrimgeour. Obviously, Thicknesse is a puppet of Voldemort.

The other main character in this "Death Eater cabinet meeting" is Severus Snape, the one who arrives late with news about Harry Potter. Snape has been Harry's least favorite teacher since he started at Hogwarts, teaching first Potions and then Defense Against the Dark Arts. Until lately, Snape was supposed to be a double-agent, pretending to work for Voldemort but actually spying for the good guys. That isn't so clear any more, now that Snape killed the greatest wizard ever, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, in book/movie #6. Dumbledore's the dude you see falling in slow motion near the beginning of this movie, in a flashback to his final moments.

The people who show up at Harry's house to move him to the Burrow are members of the Order of the Phoenix, an anti-Death Eater thing started by Dumbledore. Harry is safe in the Dursley's home until he turns 17, the age of majority for wizards, but as his birthday approaches they need to find another alternative. The Burrow is the upcountry, salt-of-the-earth home of the Weasleys, an all-wizarding family who include Harry's best friend Ron and his main squeeze, Ron's kid sister Ginny. In this scene you are introduced to an awful lot of characters in very little time, and it doesn't help that half of them end up looking identical to Harry, thanks to a little magic called Polyjuice Potion, requiring a few hairs out of Harry's scalp to have its full effect.

The guy with the crazy eye and the flask of potion is, natch, Mad-Eye Moody, one of a succession of Defense Against the Dark Arts Professors Emeritii who form a part of this film's enormous cast. Mad-Eye has made a career out of fighting dark wizards, so he's a bit paranoid. Take a good look when he flies by on his semi-recumbent broomstick; it's the last time you're ever going to see him. Later on, you'll hear that Mad-Eye has been killed.

Also participating in the Seven Harrys ruse are two men with horrible scars on their faces. The elder of the two is Remus Lupin, another ex-DADA professor who happens to be a werewolf. The news that his wife Tonks almost gets out, before Moody interrupts her, is that they are going to have a baby. Lupin got his facial scratches from a hippogriff, which is a long story. The younger disfigured face belongs to Bill Weasley, Ron's oldest brother, who (like Scrimgeour) should have been introduced in a previous film but hasn't appeared until now. His fiancee, Fleur Delacour, competed against Harry in a sort of magical Olympiad in book/film #4, and it's their wedding that we see later. And though this movie doesn't reveal it, theirs also is the seaside cottage where Harry & his friends end up at the end of this "Part 1."

The tall, snappily dressed, jocular twins are two more of Ron's brothers, Fred and George by name. Believe it or not, there are still two more Weasley boys who don't appear in this film, Charlie and Percy. This makes Ron the youngest of six boys, a fact that may help you understand the accusation, made later in the film, that Ron's mother liked him least because she had always wanted a girl. The twins, who are only a couple years older than Ron, are so close that they complete each other's sentences, and they are rich because they own a joke shop together.

We haven't met Mundungus Fletcher before. If he seems a little seedy to you, that's because he is. "Dung," as his associates call him, is a habitual thief who, we later learn, has burgled the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, which happens to the the house Harry inherited from his late godfather Sirius Black. More on that later.

Then there's Hagrid, that giant guy with the bushy beard and the flying motorbike. He was the one who placed Harry on the Dursley's doorstop all those years ago, and who later came back to tell Harry that he was a wizard and to give him his invitation to attend Hogwarts. Hagrid isn't a typical wizard. He is half-giant (on his mother's side) and for a long time he was forbidden to do magic as discipline for a crime he didn't commit. He works at Hogwarts as gamekeeper, groundskeeper, and sometime professor of Care of Magical Creatures, but he mostly serves the series as comic relief. Line: "Er, I don' want ter be rude, but... who the bloody hell are you?" (Hagrid to Umbridge, Book #5).

The big, deep-voiced wizard-of-color is Kingsley Shacklebolt, an "auror" (i.e., dark-wizard catcher like Moody) who moonlights as a member of the Order. His usual assignment (to protect the Prime Minister from magical attack) is a sign of how badly things have deteriorated in the magical world; the conflict affects more than wizards and witches. Later, when a ball of light materializes in the middle of a wedding reception, you'll hear Kingsley's voice speaking out of it.

Also involved in the operation is Arthur Weasley, the middle-aged wizard who fathered Bill, Charlie, Percy, Fred, George, Ron, and Ginny. You'll probably get this when he and Fred rush to George's side after he gets his ear blown off.

Most of the Harry impersonators and their escorts depart for the Burrow on brooms, standard flying equipment for witches and wizards. Harry, of course, joins Hagrid on his rocket-powered, gravity-defying motorcycle. The winged horsey things that you'll see at the rear of the starting line are thestrals, creatures that even wizarding folk can't see unless they have witnessed death. The fact that nobody even discusses these amazing creatures is perhaps a sign that things have gotten to a really bad point in the world of wizardry.

The owl who bites it is Hedwig, who has been Harry's familiar since he was 11 years old. In Harry's world, familiars don't serve much of a purpose magically. They're pretty much just pets with fringe benefits, such as delivering mail and (in this case) taking a killing curse intended for Harry.

That thing that happens between Harry's and Voldemort's wands isn't supposed to happen. When it happened before, in books/movies #4-6, it was supposedly because their wands were impregnated with tailfeathers from the same phoenix, making them twin wands that could not properly fight against each other. As you may gather from subsequent scenes, Voldemort is both furious and mystified to find that, even using Lucius Malfoy's wand with its dragon-heartstring core, the jets of light out of both wands connected & canceled out the curse V. was trying to throw at H.P. This is why, later, through visions in which Harry shares Voldemort's consciousness, we see Voldemort interrogating a terrified wand-maker named Gregorovitch (whom he kills) and his predecessor as Dark Lord, Grindelwald (whom, surprisingly, he leaves alive). He is looking for a wand that cannot be defeated in combat--one of the Deathly Hallows, that we learn about as the movie goes on.

Harry is going to have some trouble, later, deciding whether he should keep looking for horcruxes or whether he had better complete his own collection of Deathly Hallows, relics of death that will make one "the master of death." Meanwhile, he has to fight against the idea of other people risking their lives for him because he is the "chosen one" who, according to a prophecy revealed earlier in the series, can only be killed by Voldemort, and is the only person who can kill Voldemort... and one of them must die.

The chubby lady who runs out of the Burrow and hugs Harry, after he and Hagrid land, is Molly Weasley, Arthur's wife and sevenfold baby-mommy. She's also the closest thing to a mother Harry has ever known, which is good because she's going to end up being his mother-in-law. That's not a spoiler, is it? I mean, after the "zip me up" scene you kind of have to see that coming!

At the wedding we meet several people who are introduced to us (such as the disturbingly honest Luna Lovegood and her conspiracy-theorist father Xenophilius, who live just over the hill from the Weasleys) and a few who aren't. The portly man Harry sits down to talk with is Elphias Doge, the author of a tribute to the late Dumbledore that Harry says he found moving; if you've watched closely, you may know this already from a scene where Harry is reading a wizarding newspaper called The Daily Prophet. The batty old lady who butts into their conversation is Ron's Great-Aunt Muriel, which you won't know unless you've read the book.

Auntie Muriel teasingly mentions an historian named Bathilda Bagshot, whose name Harry ought to recognize because she authored all the textbooks for his History of Magic classes at Hogwarts... only, because the subject was so boring, nobody read the books except Hermione. If you remember this conversation, and if you look sharp when Harry turns over a book on the history of magic and sees the author's name and picture on the back cover, you might recognize Bathilda Bagshot at the same moment that Harry does. When Bathilda enters the scene, brace yourself; that's arguably the most terrifying scene in the entire series.

After the wedding breaks up, a lot of stuff happens really fast and there isn't space here to explain it all. Most of the characters you will see aren't that significant. The house the trio holes up in used to belong to Sirius Black's family, but since Sirius was killed in book/film #5, Harry actually owns it--along with the nasty but obedient house-elf named Kreacher. The other house-elf who soon turns up is Dobby, who has known Harry since book/film #2 and who, before Harry set him free, was enslaved to the Malfoy family. The people Harry, Ron, and Hermione "become" (via Polyjuice Potion) at the Ministry are new characters, so if you pay attention you'll know all there is to know about them. I think these roles were cast well, because you can really see the hero trio embodied in these grown-up characters.

The only two characters we see at the ministry that you may need to remember are Yaxley, the guy with the blond pony-tail who heads the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and who chases the trio right out of the Ministry; and Delores Umbridge, the poison-pink witch (and yet another former DADA teacher) who proves to have collected not just the locket stolen by Regulus Black but also the magic eye of Mad-Eye Moody. What happens to Ron during the trio's hair-raising escape from Yaxley's pursuit? He gets splinched, which is to say he left behind a part of himself--a hazard whenever you apparate in a rush.

The guy who smells Hermione's perfume through her protective enchantments is the leader of a party of Snatchers, who make a living rounding up "muggleborns" (witches and wizards with no known magical ancestry, like Hermione) and "halfbloods" (you figure it out), so that Voldemort's racist regime can apply the magical equivalent of thumbscrews to them. One of the Snatchers (the one who answers when his leader says, "Hey, Ugly") is Fenrir Grayback, the werewolf who gave Bill Weasley his facial scratches and his taste for raw meat. The Wizarding Wireless that Ron listens to is reading lists of magical-war casualties, and of witches or wizards who have gone Missing In Action.

In the scene where the Death Eaters search the Hogwarts school train for Harry Potter, a good-looking boy turns toward the camera and says, "My father will hear about this." This is Cormac McLaggen, a complete jerk who once competed with Ron both romantically and athletically. More significant as a character is the orthodontically challenged boy who stands up and says, "Hey, losers, he's not here!" This guy is Neville Longbottom, who has come a long way from the tubby, nervous, clumsy little boy we first met in Harry Potter 1.0, trying to catch his pet toad Trevor and earning House Points for standing up to his friends. By the end, Neville is going to be a real hero. What the movies don't tell you is that the same prophecy that anointed Harry as the "chosen one" could have applied to Neville equally well... up to a point. In a sense, they both end up fulfilling it, since Neville plays an important role in rubbing out Voldemort.

The village that Harry and Hermione visit, with such gruesome results, is Godric's Hollow. This was the birthplace of Harry's great ancestor Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts, and the birthplace of Harry himself. It is also where Voldemort killed Harry's parents and, we now learn, where Dumbledore's family lived when that great man was but a boy. The handsome youth whose picture Harry recognizes at Bathilda Bagshot's house turns out to be Grindelwald, the ex-Dark Lord whom Voldemort questions about the Elder Wand. You will have to wait until Part 2 to find out how Grindelwald and Dumbledore were connected.

The silver doe that Harry follows into the woods to find the Sword of Gryffindor is a Patronus; that is, a manifestation of a witch or wizard's fighting spirit, produced by the "Expecto Patronum" charm which Harry shoots at the dementors in the basement of the Ministry. Harry's patronus is a silvery stag; Umbridge's, which you see sitting on her judicial bench, is a kitten. I think the glowing orb at the wedding, the one that spoke with Kingsley's voice, was also supposed to be a patronus. Mostly these are used to fight the dementors, which would otherwise steal every opportunity to suck your soul out through your mouth, or at least give you the screaming willies. They can also, apparently, be used to send messages. The question now is: Who sent the silver doe? (Readers of the book already know this. HP virgins watching the film will have to wait until Part 2 to find out.)

The prisoners in the dungeon at Malfoy Manor are Luna Lovegood (whom you have already met), Griphook the goblin (who works at the goblin-run Gringotts Bank), and Ollivander the wand-maker (who sold Harry his first wand in book/film #1, and who we briefly glimpsed being interrogated after Lucius Malfoy's wand blew up in Voldemort's hand). And the rat-faced Death Eater who minds the prisoners is Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail, whose silvery hand is a gift from Voldemort in exchange for an evil sacrifice that he made to return the Dark Lord to full physical form; Wormtail, who can turn into a rat whenever he wants, was a friend of Harry's parents whose betrayal led to their deaths.

By the way, unlike Dobby, who is a special effect, Griphook is played by an actual actor in makeup and prosthetics; the same actor who played the hero Ewok in Return of the Jedi. But then, this film is loaded with big-time actors playing bit parts. Part of this is a result of series continuity being preserved at any cost, so that characters who played an important role in previous books/movies frequently turn up for just a moment or two in this one. The extreme example of this is Fiona Shaw as Harry's Aunt Petunia. We see her for about 2 seconds, scowling through the windshield of the family car; she doesn't say a word, but she gets star billing in the end credits. And so do Robbie "Cracker" Coltrane as Hagrid, Richard "Withnail & I" Griffiths as Uncle Vernon, Julie "Billy Elliott" Walters as Mrs. Weasley, Ralph "The Constant Gardener" Fiennes as Voldemort, Timothy "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" Spall as Wormtail, Helena "A Room With a View" Bonham Carter as Bellatrix, Brendan "Into the Storm" Gleeson as Mad-Eye, Imelda "Vera Drake" Staunton as Umbridge, David "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" Thewlis as Lupin, Alan "Die Hard" Rickman as Snape, Bill "Love Actually" Nighy as Scrimgeour, Jason "Brotherhood" Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, John "Nineteen Eighty-Four" Hurt as Ollivander, and Rhys "Notting Hill" Ifans as Xenophelius Lovegood.

Plus there are several characters, played by big-time actors, who are only glimpsed: Michael Gambon as Dumbledore (in a flashback to his falling death), Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter (in a magically moving photo on the cover of her book), Frances de la Tour as Madame Maxime (standing next to Hagrid at the wedding), etc., etc., etc. Certain characters' voices are heard though the big-name actors playing them are offscreen, such as Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn (in an audio clip of him, in film 6, reacting in horror to a then-teenage Voldemort's suggestion that one might split his soul into seven horcruxes). And there are still more examples who haven't appeared yet in Part 1, but we will surely see them by the end of Part 2, such as Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall. We haven't officially found out yet that the person Harry sometimes sees looking back at him out of the mirror fragment he carries around is Dumbledore's brother Aberforth, who will be played by Ciaran Hinds.

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