Archive for the ‘ Strafe Reviews: ’ Category

In review: The Music of 2012 (part 2)

…continued from yesterday’s post:

Best Metal Album: Testament – The Dark Roots of Earth

album art

Simultaneous winner of the “pleasant surprise of the year” award, this one snuck up on me. I was thoroughly pleased with 2009’s Formation of Damnation, but I really didn’t expect a comparable follow-up. Like prog, something magical is happening right now in the world of metal, where after a 15 year or so hiatus, the classic bands are artistically relevant again. Unlike prog, there are far fewer “new” bands poised to take over, so I’m not sure how long this can be sustained, but I’ll be thankful for whatever we get. I can’t help but feel like I’m enjoying this album for the wrong reasons, but the shout-along chorus of the opening track “When I say rise up, you say war!” is the perfect blend of awesome and cheesy… like an 80’s action movie (same goes for “True American Hate”). As always, Alex Skolnick’s lead guitars are awe-inspiring, and Chuck Billy’s thrashy shouts and near-death growls are admirable.

Despite my urge to make fun of their lyrics, “Native Blood” is inspiring. It also, notably, was awarded “Best Music Video of the Year” at the Native American Film Festival. Not sure how much competition it had, but then again, the portrayal non-violent confrontation is really something I think all Americans need right now [end of sentimental comments].

Testament also gets bonus points for “Cold Embrace,” as their first catchy ballad since “Return to Serenity”… twenty years ago.

This is also the second appearance of drummer Gene Hoglan on this list. The man is an unfailing ace in the hole for making sure your album is worthwhile. Not only is he on the previously reviewed Epicloud (and other Towsend albums), but he played on Death’s Individual Thought Patterns, aka the most influential death metal album ever… Dark Angel’s well-reviewed but impossible to find pair Darkness Descends and Time Does Not Heal, and provided drums for the fictionally-famous Dethklok.

[More prog]

Anathema Weather Systems

album artwork

I’m not sure if the album was meant to be taken this way, but to me, Weather Systems combines the best qualities of the electronic music I listened to in volumes ten years ago, and the ultra-technical prog that dominates my playlists now. I feel especially fortunate to have been shown this album by a friend, because before spring of 2012 I’d never even heard of Anathema. The melodies are so moving that I don’t even care that it’s all in common time and mid-tempo. Plus, when it’s done right, there’s just something so good about an acoustic guitar and a synthesizer playing together. The music straddles the lines between several genres… I could describe parts of it as ambient, chillout, electronica, metal, post-metal, neo-prog, new-prog, and symphonic prog. And I probably missed a few.

The shared vocals between the brothers’ Cavanagh and Lee Douglas are haunting, and stand out as essential to the music in a genre where vocals are frequently treated as an afterthought. Similar to Townsend’s work, some parts of this album get really dense, but its used as an exception rather than a rule, and the songs, while not especially lengthy, are long enough to ease into it. This technique is possibly a relic of Anathema’s origins as a doom metal band.

The highpoint of the album is the nine-minute “The Storm Before the Calm.” It builds tension during the first half (The Storm: “It’s getting colder…”) venturing the furthest into the electronic territory. A fade-out halfway through tricks you into thinking it won’t be resolved, but it lives up to its title. “It ebbs and flows and comes and goes / it eats you up and lets you go.” After sitting out most of the song, Lee Douglas joins adding a beautiful alto line to the final set of lyrics (“Am I still here?”. Notably, while guitarist/vocalist Daniel Cavanagh principally composed the whole album, this piece of melodic genius was written by… the drummer!

Neal Morse – Momentum

album art

A solo studio album, a super-group, a cover album, and a live album: rest assured Neal will release at least two of them every year. This year, he managed three.

With Momentum, Neal managed his first worthwhile non-concept album. I found last two albums to be a bit disappointing (including his first try at a song-driven album, 2008’s Lifeline), and on learning that he was basically recording this in a rush after plans of a new Transatlantic album fell apart [excuse me while I scream into a pillow], I was braced for more of the same. I was relieved. The music is bright, varied, and as always with Neal, catchy (esp. the title track, “Weathering Sky” and “Freak”). The Christian themes are right where I expected them, but the lyrics have gotten much less praise and worship-y. To steal from a friend, Morse writes incredible melodies with a similar ease and frequency to a bodily function, and it’s nice to know that he can occasionally realize the in a five minute song.

That all being said, about 55% of the album is dominated by the final track, “World Without End.” He’s done better, but there’s plenty to be desired here.

As an added bonus, Randy George’s bass seems to play a more significant role here than in the past (including taking a lead part in the main riff to “Weathering Sky”). Mike Portnoy’s drumming is exactly what it should be. Also, it’s the first worthwhile post-Dream Theater recording Mike Portnoy has appeared on, after the disappointing Flying Colors and artistically-null Omertà.

Honorable Mentions:

Rush – Clockwork Angels; Coheed & Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension; Ian Anderson – Thick As a Brick 2

Best Live Album: Porcupine Tree – Octane Twisted

With this album, Porcupine Tree joins Dream Theater, Opeth, Transatlantic, Marillion, and Rush in an official live release containing the performance of an entire album. This time, it’s 2009’s The Incident, and arguably, it’s better than the studio release. Something about the intricacies of prog sort of demands a live performance of anything that sounds daring on a recording, as kind of a “proof” of musicianship. Let’s just say, Steven Wilson and so come through. The second half of the concert is none too shabby either: in addition to containing most of the second-disc songs from The Incident, it’s got a significant portion of “Anesthetize” and an always-welcome new rendition of “Arriving Somewhere.”

Best Re-release/ Re-Master:

Thick as a Brick, 40th Anniversary edition, with multiple mixes by singer/songwriter/guitarist/engineer/producer/genius/skinny person Steven Wilson.

Biggest Let-downs:

In addition to Flying Colors and Omertà (sorry, Mike Portnoy)… Storm Corrosion. That’s all I’m saying.

Best Christmas Album

I can’t believe I even get to make this a category, but I’ve got to recognize… A Proggy Christmas by the “Prog World Orchestra,” aka Transatlantic in all but name. I’ll never be able to hear “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” again without mentally putting Neal Morse’s voice to it. It’s great to hear musically-intricate takes on Christmas standards… but it makes it all the more frustrating that Transatlantic couldn’t produce an album this year. Let’s have a toast to 2013…


In review: The Music of 2012 (part 1)

2012 was an incredible year for music. It was also a weird year for prog. We got over a dozen good, nay, great! prog albums this year , yet oddly, out of what I consider to be the “Big 4” of currently-active prog bands (Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Marillion), only one released a studio album this year. However, key members (or former members) of all those bands appeared on something this year. As for the band that did release an album:

Best Album: Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made


For the 5 Marillion fans who haven’t heard this yet (actually, that number may be a little high), this album is the perfect blend of the best elements of Marbles, Afraid of Sunlight, and This Strange Engine. Its production and epic scope make this Marbles‘ long-awaited worthy successor, but it lacks some of that album’s most processed-sounding effects (especially on the percussion). It’s also very much a song-driven record, and each piece is completely unique. Even the weaker tracks (“Montreal,” “Invisible Ink”) have enough charm to make a cynic smile.

The band got significant mileage out of “Power” and “Lucky Man” on their 2012 tour, and the official recordings don’t disappoint. “Power” especially lives up to its name every time the chorus comes around. A personal favorite is the under-publicized title track: whenever Steve H sings “…silent and high,” I have an irrepressible urge to close my eyes and lift my hands in prog-praise. And that’s nothing compared to what happens when H. starts singing about the aurora borealis. Rothery’s guitar tone and Kelley’s keyboards find that difficult balance between electronic and organic that perfectly complement the song’s imagery of impossible sounds and beholding nature from space. One last direct Marbles comparison: I can’t help but see “The Sky Above the Rain” as a “ten years later” follow-up to “Neverland,” and H.’s real-life struggles that inspired it. Appropriately, I feel like I age ten years every time I hear it, but no Marillion piece is without a glimmer of optimism.

The seventeen-minute opener, “Gaza” has gotten Marillion more publicity alone than most albums… to the point of dis-servicing both the song and the whole album. Musically, it’s one of the heaviest things they’ve ever done, up there with “Ocean Cloud” and “This Strange Engine.” Its lyrics, focusing on the civilian population of the Gaza strip, include passages inspired (or maybe directly quoted) from real Skype conversations H. had with Gaza residents. Almost all of the press addressing this song refers to it as “political” and “controversial.” I find that almost insulting… take a look at the actual lyrics:

We all want peace and freedom that’s for sure

But peace won’t come from standing on our necks

Everyone deserves a chance to feel the future just might be bright

But any way you look at this – whichever point of view

For us to have to live like this

It just ain’t right

Apparently, reminding the first world of the humanity of civilians caught in a warzone is now a controversial position. Good job, Marillion.

One last factoid to mention: the DVD documentary accompanying the deluxe edition of the album contains stills from the 2012 North American tour. My friend and I are clearly visible in one of the pictures. That has precisely nothing to do with this album’s position on my list.

Runner-up: Devin Townsend Project Epicloud

One shouldn’t judge a book (or album) by its cover… but in the case of Epicloud, I think it’s safe to say it sounds exactly like its artwork implies:
album artwork
The key descriptor here is manic!… it’s fifty minutes of loud, dense, heavy, quirky post-metal. This album is even more exciting considering the context of Devin Townsend’s career: he dissolved the band that made him famous, released several artistic, but oppressively-dark albums, went two years without recording anything at all, and then documented his recovery from substance addiction over a four-album series. This marks his first aconceptual post-recovery solo album, and he’s rocking out like a man reborn.

A constant of all of Townsend’s music (that I’ve heard so far) is its density: there is not a beat of silence anywhere. Sometimes it approaches ridiculous: multiple keyboards with theoretically infinite sustain, brass cymbals ringing out, distorted guitars playing loud, simple chords, and heavily-reverbed vocals all going at once. Even on the slow songs. And I love it.

What’s really impressive is how many of the layered vocals are provided by Townsend… he hired a session choir for the album, but on same songs (like “Animals” and “Save Our Now”), he turns himself into a choir, and doesn’t appear to have ever met a studio effect he didn’t like. He heaps on enough tracks and effects to cover for the fact that he’s a much better musician than a singer. Come to think of it… he’s pretty much prog’s equivalent of Andrew W.K.

And, proving that Townsend is a song-writing machine, the deluxe edition of the album includes a “bonus disc” that is basically a second album. Not as conceptually tight as the album proper… but it’s also only a dollar more. In the meantime, Nightwish charges almost double to include an instrumental mix of their albums… some people.

Best Independent Release: Sean Filkins–War and Peace & Other Short Stories

album artwork

This is my obligatory promotion of a very under-the-radar artist. I’m shocked and saddened at how little attention so many of these great artists are getting. Amazon currently only has two copies of the CD (but it’s $9 to download… that’s about $.07/minute).

This is a beautiful “classic” prog album. The album features the especially-impressive half-hour “Prisoner of Conscience” suite, right in the middle (unusual placement for such a piece, but no complaints). All composition, singing, and principle instruments are performed by Filkins himself. The overall sound is perfectly modern, but the style is a worthy continuation of the type of music Yes and Genesis released in the seventies, but is in no way derivative. (I could just as easily apply that last sentence to early Spock’s Beard, IQ, Citizen Cain, Glass Hammer, and Also Eden… it is seriously mind boggling at how much great prog there is right now).

Bonus — The Spock’s Beard/Big Big Train connection: Neal Morse is the former front man of Spock’s Beard who left the band to pursue a solo prog career. He plays all principle instruments on his albums. Sean Filkins is the former frontman of the British progressive rock band Big Big Train. Filkins left BBT, and was replaced by Neal Morse’s replacement, Nick D’Virgillio. This, Filkins’ debut album, features, among other guest musicians, current Spock’s Beard bassist Dave Meros. It’s simple really.

Continued in part 2…
Testament; Anathema; Neal Morse, and more!

Yogurt and Grammar: A “Review”

Preamble: I just wrote a very difficult and reluctant letter, so I’m making up for it by listening to some Transatlantic and writing this in the same unsaved Libre Office document.

Blog Proper:

Without doing any prior research, I’m going to blindly, yet confidently tell you that you are but a search engine query away from a virtually unlimited supply of unintentionally humorous (mis)use of quotation marks. I myself am no stranger to pointing them out whenever I see them, and I’m sure all around me see the “humor” in it. Usually I run into such examples on hand-written signs inside (or outside) privately-owned establishments. Some such examples include:

  • “Tips” appreciated
  • Restrooms are for “customers” only
  • We are proud of our “troops!!”

Superfluous quotation marks are particularly amusing because, unlike other common English typos, such as confusing a homonym, or skipping an apostrophe, use of quotes outside of a direct quotation implies an ironic context. Unintended irony effectively means making a liar out of oneself. And we love to see The Man expose himself as a fraud. I think that’s precisely why, lately, I’ve become jaded with nitpicking signs like those above. Those aren’t the signs of The Man. They’re the signs of high schoolers who need cash, temporary clerks not paid enough to care more, and immigrants who are perfectly literate in a language that denotes dialogue <<like this>>. Also, lately, whenever I make fun of a small business, I get the feeling that the joke’s on me on some level, owing to the fact that these proprietors actually own their own businesses, while I spend 40 hours a week ear-cuffed to a desk.

But today, it happened not on a cut-out of poster board or a quarto of cardboard, but on a glossy, professionally crafted, permanent fixture in a trendy frozen yogurt shop. It made me smile:

Contains Gluten

I’d love to tell you where I saw this, but some companies are sticklers for linking directly to their sites without express prior permission. So I’ll link to a review instead. Truthfully, the situation could be worse. It could have said:

Contains "Gluten"

Or if they really wanted to confuse someone:

Birthday Cake "Batter"

For a second I wondered if there was possibly some subtle humor in this. It all has to do with the product they’re selling: it’s imitation ice cream. It’s one of the few essentially counterfeit foodstuffs that people will seek out for its own sake. They are all but expected to go out of their way to make it look like an ice cream parlor, but just a liiiittle off, so that the patron simultaneously thinks “ice cream,” but then sees the fruit toppings and remembers “but it’s healthy.” So perhaps they are taking a lighthearted jab at their own necessary level of artificiality? Doubtful, seeing as how they got it right here:

Plain Tart

On an interesting side note, there’s no warning at all here:

Peanut Butter

I am reasonably certain that peanut butter frozen yogurt contains peanuts. Meaning no disrespect to those who have been diagnosed with a gluten insensitivity, but I’m kind surprised given this context.

Grammatical humor aside, since I was moved enough by this establishment to squeeze out a pseudo-review of it, it’s only fair to offer an honest reaction to their product.

Let’s just say I “enjoyed it.”

7 Things the Harry Potter Movies Got Right

The last minute and I have an affair reaching back well over a decade. Now, on the Eve of the release of Part 1 of the HP finale, I realized I stood little chance of finishing this post in time. Also, I was gently informed that the predecessor to this post was far too long. The solutions to both these problems was obvious… so, I give you:

7 Things the Harry Potter Movies Got Right (Part 1)

7 — (Movie) Magic

Twenty years ago, people noticed digital affects, and were amazed. The T1000 in Terminator 2? Jaw dropping. He’s liquid metal! Today, for better or worse, audiences have come to expect great effects… if we notice them, it’s usually because they look fake. I, for one, rarely notice the effects in Harry’s world.

Budget is part of this–the effects team has no reason to cheap out on these films. Also, we are shown things for which we have no frame of reference; my mind doesn’t have a great many “stock” images of Hippogriff’s and flying curses, so the images presented on screen seem to do a great job. I think this is partially why many of the affects in the newer Star Wars films are unsatisfying–we all know that space battles are supposed to look like WWII fights on a black background (with ironic thanks to Lucas’ earlier films), so when they don’t, we’re disappointed. I never thought the flying car sequences in Chamber of Secrets looked quite right, and it,s probably or a similar reason: we have a good idea of what that would really look like.

Most importantly, the visual presentation of the HP universe extends well beyond the digital. Those Hogwarts interiors are real. The lighting is intentional, and mostly effective (notable exception: some shots in Half Blood Prince, in which the camera showed up wearing sun glasses and David Yates decided to go with it.) Hundreds of hours of forced perspective shots have been lined up in order to make Robbie Coltrane eight and a half feet tall. This conscientious design and labor pays-off and gives this magical world an unexpected, and refreshing sense of authenticity.

I said real, not to scale

6 — Settings

CGI or real, miniature or full set, the film maker’s have nailed the settings [pun totally intended]. They didn’t give us Cinderella’s Castle for Hogwarts… they gave us a chaotic, neo-Gothic fortress. And yet somehow they kept it beautiful.

Not that the films are afraid to get gritty. The Shrieking Shack in Prisoner of Azkaban, the underpass (where the dementors attack) in Order of the Phoenix, the Underground in the opening of Half Blood Prince… these places stand is sharp contrast to the magical backdrop of the films, and are frankly terrifying.

What’s particularly great about the Underground shots is that they aren’t in the book. This scene is inserted to replace the obligatory “back at the Dursley Residence” chapter that opens each book… and it lends enough to the mood of the film to be forgiven. I mention that because the film makers take ignoring Rowling’s descriptions to new artistic heights in the final act of Order of the Phoenix when the characters invade the Department of Mysteries.

Sum of the remainder of an unbalanced equation inherrant to the programming of the Matrix... what the hell?

This all makes me very excited for Deathly Hallows–we’ve been stuck at Hogwarts for 6 movies, with the excoption of the end battles (even in the first two movies, the end sequence comes in never-before-or-again-seen dungeons). Now, we can anticipate more of Grimmauld place and the Ministry, plus Malfoy Manor, Shell Cottage and Gringotts… with the final battle at Hogwarts.

Don’t screw up, Yates…

5 — Casting

Some misguided fans write erotic fan fiction. According to’s Rule 34 there’s some witch-on-witch-on-Dobby out there. Now, I’m not into that. I am, however, considering doing a piece in which Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman trade some serious wizarding Yo Mama’s.

Yeah, well your mama's so ugly the Basilisk can't look HER in the eye!

Now that I’ve put an image in your mind that makes you wish for an Obliviator Charm, they really got some superb actors and actresss for these parts. That’s impressive, because a lot commitments to child actors had to be made’ with over a decade’s worth of movies to be made. If Daniel Radcliffe had gone Culkin on us, that could easily have derailed the franchise.

But enough about the kids… it’s the portrayal of the secondary characters that wow me. Both Dumbledore’s, despite having radically different interpretations of the character, play him true to the book (When reading the books, I picture Richard Harris orating the lengthier speeches, and Michael Gambon delivering the shorter quips, and of course doing all the fighting). Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid gets more impressive when you realize his accent is 100% fake. The aforementioned roles of Snape and Sirius are played perfectly. And even if she is phoning it in, I am obligated to say Helena Carter is a great Bellatrix.

Allow me a moment here to step out of my demographic and mention that I’m disappointed in Emma Watson lately. Maybe it’s just an American thing… hey internet, send me a British commenter! Does Hermione speak clearly by English standards? Somewhere around movie 4 or 5 she seems to have quit enunciating. It hasn’t been so bad because, as the plots grow more complex and they have to shoe-horn in many secondary and tertiary characters, Ron and Hermione have taken a bit of a backseat. But the way Deathly Hallows is structured, we are bound to get plenty of the trio… and there’s a lengthy sequence where Harry and Hermione will have to carry on their own. This could be really good, or, if previous patterns continue, it could provide an opportunity for an extended bathroom break.

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I made this coarse joke involving Dobby...

4 — Tie: Dialogue & Music

Dialogue is kind of easy because most of the best lines are taken directly from the book. Still, a great bit of abridging, rearranging, and adding has been done, to mostly good effect.

Scenes that come to mind: Neville’s revelation about his parents to Harry in Order of the Phoenix: entirely fabricated for the movie, but totally true to the character. Earlier in the same movie, Harry and Sirius’ conversation over the Black Family Tree–a combination of two separate scenes from the book. All of Harry and Lupin’s scenes are excellent, regardless of which movie.

But the crown jewel comes from the least complimented movie (at least on my lists), Goblet of Fire. Lord Voldemort’s return to power, and the subsequent fight, is overshadowed in weight and creepiness by Voldemort’s lengthy, and ultimately premature victory speech. It so effectively establishes how powerful and frightening this character is that he is still coasting on it three movies later, despite having about 4 lines from then to now.

As for the music- continued in part 2

7 Things the Harry Potter Movies Got Wrong (So Far) [Spoilers!]

I have no shame in admitting to being a huge Harry Potter fan. I never waited in line for the books, and I don’t wear robes to the premiers… but then again I do everything online and I hate shopping for clothes. In anticipation for part 1 of the Harry Potter finale coming in November (I wonder what this post will do to the ads at the bottom of the page?), my beloved and I have been both re-reading the books, and watching the movies.

And because I know no better way than to show love for something, I must lampoon it on my blog.

Disclaimer 1: Be it known that I love these movies… errors, oversights, and all.

Disclaimer 2: In case I would be accused of only blogging about the negatives, my next post shall be about the strengths of these films.

Disclaimer 3: In case you chose to disregard the title, this is your last chance: this post contains spoilers. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, and intent to, skip this post. Read about Higgs Boson. Or, send me a blog idea.

7 — Argus Filch

If you just said “Who?,” my point is made. Argus Filch is the keeper of the castle and essentially Hagrid’s opposite. Like Hagrid, he does not use magic, though it is not for lack of permission-rather he is a squib; a person of magical heritage with no magical abilities. This is explained in the movies, with the singular exception of Draco Malfoy yelling “Get your hands off me, filthy squib!” in Half-Blood Prince. He is obsessed with cleanliness, laments the prohibition of torture against ornery students, and uses his cat as an agent.

Aren't you from Rush?

His role in the books is hardly significant, and I’d probably be fine if he were deleted from the movies altogether. However, in Sorcerer’s Stone, he is very much present, and superbly portrayed. His loathing for the students, and cynicism towards his colleagues is haunting and skillfully timed. Take his line to Hagrid: “Your going int’ the forest, man… y’ve got t’ ‘ave your wits about ya…”

Sadly, this development is not continued in the later films, and by Goblet of Fire he has become a bumbling parody of himself, ineffective and unaware. Case in point: the “dancing with the cat” shot in Goblet, and his entire role in Order.

6 — Hufflewhat and Ranenwho?

The books themselves often let Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw be overshadowed by Griffidor and Ravenclaw. This is especially true in the earlier books, but later in the series the other houses get some airtime. In the movies, however, it’s easy to forget they even exist. I’m pretty sure they put both Patel twins in Griffindor (not positive though), and do they ever even mention that Cho Chang and Luna Lovegood are in Ravenclaw? Same with Cedric Diggory being from Hufflepuff.

The unfortunate consequence here is that it undermines the qualities the other two houses life up, namely intelligence and loyalty. Also, quite unintentionally I’m sure, it implies that all the members of Dumbledore’s Army (Phoenix) are from Griffindor, while the rest of the school presumably sleeps through Voldemort’s second rise to power.

5 — Whatever happened to Mr…

Quick, who are any of the following?

> Kingsley Shacklebolt
> Fenrir Greyback
> Walden Macnair
> Tonks
> Fillius Flitwick
> Pomona Sprout

They have all appeared in the films, but are seldom or never mentioned by name. Now, I know given the sheer number of named-characters who appear in the books necessitates some truncating (the Wikipedia entries for said characters sprawl at least 4 “databases,” plus each of the “main” characters has his/her own entry), but I think some critical characters have been overlooked.

Take Kingsley Shacklebolt, for instance. Shacklebolt is a member of The Order of the Phoenix, but also works for the (impotent and increasingly antagonizing) Ministry of Magic. His role, as explained in the books, is that of a double agent between the Ministry and Dumbledore.

Kingsley is briefly introduced early in the fifth film, but is easily missed among the other known characters. Later, during a memorable, and critical scene wherein an innocent Dumbledore narrowly evades arrest, a very out-of-place looking wizard (even by Harry Potter standards) makes a pithy remark to the Minister of Magic before the scene break.

Now, if the viewer missed the fact that this man is also a member of the Order, then he is simply an eccentric, unnamed agent of the Ministry. But, if the viewer does notice, then the latter scene makes no sense… without context, or so much as a formal introduction to this character, why did one of Dumbledore’s men come to arrest him? Is he a traitor to the order? A double agent? An extra carelessly reused? The audience has no reasonable way to infer the meaning of this character… so why was he included at all?

Keep in mind, several critical characters have been eliminated entirely… these memorable (and well-played, when given screen time) characters are in the films just enough to cause confusion.

4 — Whoops! Turns out that was important…

There is an increasing problem of minor details, completely ignored in certain movies, becoming a big deal in later movies.

The movies are frequently made fun of for the Quidditch scenes. Apparently, outside of the first film they are conspicuous interrupters to the main plot… at least to casual fans. I disagreed at first. Then suddenly Half Blood Prince comes around and Harry is captain. Ginny is on the team (seems to be a returning member… “varsity” if you will) and Ron is trying out. What? How did this happen after two years of no Quidditch?

Presumably it was canceled in Goblet due to the Triwizard Tournament, and in Order during Umbridge’s tyrannical reign. But wait… Harry has that line “Just because you made the team last year is no guarantee…” So the movies state that Quidditch happened in Order, but we never see a second of it.

It gets bigger than Quidditch.

After Chamber of Secrets, Dobby the House elf disappears entirely. I think this was done due to a few other unfortunate all-CGI, vaguely humanoid, ineloquent characters present at the time.

To be fair, they kind of had a point...

Too bad for continuity, since Dobby is quite important to the storyline, and needed to have his undeletable moments of influence re-assigned… in two different movies it went to Neville (the Gilley-Weed, and discovering the Room of Requirement).

On the subject of Neville, his parents’ backstory was somewhat gracefully addressed in a brief scene in Order, but his role in the Prophecy is ignored completely. I’m frightened that when they get to Neville’s plot-critical moment in part 2 of Deathly Hallows (spoiler exception!), without the story behind it we will get the impression that he just bumbled into destiny, rather than fulfill it.

3 — Wait? It’s over?

The first two films were faithful to the books to a fault. Many of the numerous cut scenes are made entirely of word-for-dialogue, from-the-text dialogue, which, predictably, did not transition too well to film.

"I'm enjoying my steak and kidney pies. Care for some?" "No thanks, I tihnk I'll stick to treackle tart... but I'm looking forward to those tongue sandwiches and mutton-sickles for lunch."

Still, without these scenes, the films both approach three hours. And these were for the shorter books.

The later books get progressively longer, and almost without exception, better. However, if you check the running times on the fifth and sixth films, they are 20 minutes or so shorter than the early films. It is unavoidable that subplots and a certain richness of detail will be lost when trying to cram a sprawling novel into an audience-friendly film. However, the last decade has done wonders in this department–thanks largely to the efforts of Peter Jackson, and other filmmakers too numerous to count, it is perfectly acceptable for a movie to approach three hours–even a movie geared towards children (Prince Caspian is 150 minutes).

My opinion is that the pressure to make each film a blockbuster permeates the entire film making process, from the screen-writing to the actual filming to the editing–so far too much is identified as “fat to be trimmed,” which may otherwise have survived. Thus we feel rushed through a rather complex story. As a byproduct of this, we get the problem referenced in the previous and following entries…

2 — Marginalization of the House Elves (and other creatures)

Separate and apart from the deletion of Dobby, is the deletion of other House Elves, and the relative disregard of the other sentient creatures in the Harry Potter universe… the Goblins, the Giants, the Centaurs, etc. Yes, they do appear in the film. But nothing happens to set them apart from ghosts, Dementors, trolls, and other creatures in the Harry Potter world.

Part of this may be actually related to the books–Rowling introduces us to several obviously-sentient creatures early on, but they do not differ significantly from, say, the moving/talking pictures that line the halls of Hogwarts. They’re almost not “real;” they don’t matter. Then, in book 4, that begins to change. Gradually we are introduced to the idea that the wizarding world has impeded upon the natural rights of these magical creatures. For instance, Goblin “technology” is used by wizards, but Goblins are not allowed to make or possess wands. House Elves are nothing but slaves; Centaurs are treated more as wild animals than members of magical society.

The movies have ignored this completely. The consequence here is twofold–first, it forgives a major flaw in the pre-Voldemort influenced Ministry of Magic. More significantly, however, it causes the movies to “revert” to the attitude that the early books have–it shows us sentient creatures, which are clearly in subordinate roles to humans, and then never addresses why this is. It implies that it isn’t a problem, or simply isn’t worth the time.

1 — Goblet of Fire

Disclaimer 4: I feel obligated to state, up front, that I feel that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is by far the weakest book of the series; thus I’d expect it to make a weak movie. But I believe this film missed the mark even relative to it’s low-bar target. Many may disagree (the box office certainly did–it is both the highest-grossing and most popular movie of the series).

Forget cutting nonessential scenes, and combining several scenes/locations for the sake of time and pacing. Goblet takes so many liberties that it contradicts established norms in the Harry Potter universe, and makes implications that require the reader to have either a)read the books ahead of time, or b)commit not to analyze the movie beyond the current scene.

Take the Quidditch tournament that opens the film–the match itself is not shown, but we see the celebration afterwards. Dialog from the main characters implies clearly that the Irish won, but Ron is mesmerized by the performance of Viktor Krum, the star player of the losing team. Wait, what? Of course, the book addresses this with the details of the match (improbable enough on its own), but without that knowledge, it comes off as nonsensical.

What's the deal with Quidditch scoring? Doesn't the Seeker make everybody else pointless...did you ever notice that?

A far more consequential example of the same “glazing-over” of crucial detail comes with the (lack of) explanation for Barty Crouch Jr.’s escape from Azkaban. The entire plot of the previous book/movie revolves around the massive manhunt for Sirius Black following his escape from the prison; it was supposed to be impossible. The events as presented in the movie require the viewer to believe that, only a year later, another dangerous criminal escaped and no one even noticed his absence (Dumbledore’s one line on the matter: “Send an owl to Azkaban; I think they’ll find they’re missing a prisoner”).

Of course, this is the book that marks the beginning of Dobby/the House Elves disappearance. We are offerred no details as to how Alastor Moody was captured (in context of the character, it’s a real accomplishment). Sirius Black’s role is all-but removed. And as an added insult, we are treated to a sorely out-of-place scene in which Professor McGonagal gives the Griffindor students a ballroom dancing lesson. From the dance lessons to the conclusion of the ball, something like 15% of the movie plays out like an episode of “Secret Life” (or one of those). We are shown the developing love interest between Hagrid and Madaam Maxine during this sequence, but it is never properly concluded (and that has consequences in the next movie). The “romantic” moments may be enticing to the teen audience… but for every extra-textual scene that was added, that’s another great scene from the book never filmed.

And then there’s the ending.

No, not Voldemort’s second-coming; that sequence is great… although it’s hard to screw something like that up. Plus, we get to watch Edward Robert Pattinson die. The Barty Crouch interrogation is alright too. I’m talking about what happens afterwards.

As bad as the book is, it makes you want to read the next one. Dumbledore gathers all the players in his office, and though it is not mentioned by name, the Order of the Phoenix is reactivated. Dumbledore sends Hagrid and Madaam Maxine after the giants. Ron’s parents are to muster “the old crowd.” And best of all, Sirius Blank and Severus Snape are forced to face each other and shake hands. You can’t tell me Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman staring each other down wouldn’t have been great on camera.

I've got 3 to 1 on Commissioner Gordon

Instead, we get Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanging sugar-sweet sentiment, culminating with Harry delivering a zero-context quote from Dumbledore (which Dumbledore never says, books or movies): “We have something worth fighting for.” What? The ending of Goblet of Fire is like asking for dinner and being served a chicken salad and walnut sandwich. All the elements of completeness are there, and yet… something is missing.

Coming Soon: 7 Things HP (Harry Potter) Got Right

Possibly Coming Soon: 7 Things HP (Hewlett Packard) Consistently Gets Wrong

…kidding. However:

Actually Coming Soon: The Interrogation (A new short fiction piece)