Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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Cleolinda: *** 1/2

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

Rated PG for scary moments, some creature violence and mild language ("bloody hell!").

Depending on what you thought of the first Harry Potter, Chamber of Secrets is either "much better" or "even better"; no matter how you slice it, though, there's just more to work with this time around. And part of that isn't anyone's "fault," per se: while the best part of the first book/film in a series is usually its originality (no one's ever done this before), the worst part is usually its creator's inexperience (seriously, no one's ever done this before). So on one hand, you no longer have the novelty of discovering Harry's new world; on the other, the entire production--writer, director, cast--can move with a surer step and a richer stroke.

Take the production design, for example; it's packed with a thousand little wonders that are no longer even noticed by the inhabitants (which is just as it should be); Harry is now used to the moving staircases (from the first movie) and the millefleur unicorn tapestries in the common room (which I think are new to this film). Quidditch is bigger and better and more breathtaking (and more dangerous--watch that rogue bludger), the effects still not quite perfect but growing ever more seamless. The cast, well--it's bittersweet to see late, salty legend Richard Harris playing gentle Dumbledore; you wonder how much of his performance was colored by his illness. Oh, and Harry? Seriously, I am going to hold off on this kid for a couple more years--you know, until he's comfortably legal--but Daniel Radcliffe is on his way to becoming a major heartbreaker, that's all I'm going to say. (One complaint: Alan Rickman is shamefully underused, and I demand a 300% increase, minimum, of Snape screentime for
Prisoner of Azkaban.) Kenneth Branagh steals the movie out from everyone, of course, but he's actually less hammy than I thought he would be (as movie companion and Potter fan Meghan noted, "He's actually not smiling big enough." Lockhart really is that dippy, folks.) Similarly, Jason Isaacs' Malfoy is extremely restrained--I'm not saying Malfoy isn't just delicious in his sheer evilitude, I'm just saying that both Isaacs and Branagh know how to leave you wanting more.

Surprisingly, I think we may have director Chris Columbus to thank for this--Isaacs is quoted as saying in this week's EW, "'I think Chris' job consisted entirely of trying to stop me and Ken from trying to out-ham each other...Once you've got the wizard's cloak and the waist-length blond hair and you're waving a giant wand around, it's quite hard to stay rooted in Method acting. Chris gave me a lot of 'Listen, I think they could see that performance in America from here without broadcast. Shrink it down to camera size.' " But I say "surprisingly" like Columbus is some sort of hack, and he's had enough box office success to prove that he's at the very least a very competent filmmaker, and in Chamber of Secrets you see a surer touch as the camera glides and swoops through Hogwarts; I think the Harry Potter series has been, and if he returns for the fourth movie, will be the making of Columbus artistically. Still... the movie is very long, and while it's not boring, it feels long. I found myself watching various scenes wondering if certain cuts couldn't be quicker, jauntier even, and--what was with the non-segue to the Quidditch match? I can't remember the scene just before that, only that it had
nothing to do with Quidditch, and the cut to the stadium was almost jarring. Am I a picky film geek? Probably. Was the movie nearly three hours long? With screaming babies and toddlers in the audience? Yes. Yes, It Was.

Don't get me wrong--there are a lot of wonderful things in
Chamber of Secrets, and many of them involve spectacular effects without revolving around them. I was pleasantly surprised by Dobby--his voice seemed somehow more articulated than his mouth, so that's maybe something they can work on, but really, his self-flagellation (and Harry's attempts to stop him) is hilarious and very, very well done; he's got personality to spare. The Quidditch is great; the blue Cornish pixies floating, frozen, are nifty; and the spiders, the spiders freak me out the door. I don't even mind spiders usually, but there's this great Indiana Jones-style shot of (swipe for spoiler: legions of giant spiders chasing the boys in their Ford Anglia-gone-wild). Yeah, me and the spiders? Not cool anymore.

And yet... and yet. The Fawkes-basilisk parts go on just way, way too long.  I know the books are the same way, but does every movie have to end up with Dumbledore explaining some crucial back story to a bruised but wearily triumphant Harry? Do we have to have a showdown in a deep, secret cavernous place in the school where the villain talks forever instead of KILLING the poor kid? I mean, sure--let the villain talk if he's backed in a corner; but if he's got the upper hand, he's just being an idiot to put off the very thing he's been struggling to achieve the whole movie. And why does the movie end with this bizarre emphasis on Hagrid's return, when it would be more satisfying to see the kids take Harry back after the suspicion with which they've treated him? But even so, the whole shebang still glides along a lot more smoothly than Sorcerer's Stone; we're a lot closer to the ultimate Harry Potter movie. Now--does anyone know who's playing Lupin (my favorite character!) in
Prisoner of Azkaban?
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