Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"Harry Potter" Cast Scavenger Hunt

One of the unquestionable joys of the Harry Potter films was the extraordinary cast of actors, which by the end of the eight films comprised nearly every major British actor of the generation, from Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Julie Walters, and Miranda Richardson, to Ralph Fiennes and Timothy Spall. Here are a selection of some of the cast members' other wonderful films, ranging from the well-known to the obscure, though naturally this is only a tiny sampling. PLEASE NOTE: Most of these films ARE NOT APPROPRIATE for children, no matter how passionately interested in seeing the actors of Harry Potter in other contexts they may be, since many include violence, sexual content, and mature themes.

Babe - Miriam Margolys (Madame Sprout) 
Obviously, this wildly popular Oscar-winning film is anything but obscure, but I would imagine that few people have realized that the voice of Fly, the maternal sheepdog who adopts Babe the pig as one of her puppies and helps train him to herd sheep, is also the voice of Miriam Margolys, or Madame Sprout. Babe is a small masterpiece, one that despite descents into cutesiness is so honestly engaged with the reality that humans eat animals even as we anthropomorphize them that it achieves a profundity one would hardly expect in a talking animal movie. Margolys is also the voice of the matchmaker in Mulan.

Belle - Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy)
Amma Asante's period drama embellishes a tiny set of vague historical clues with a moving story of overcoming racial intolerance in the midst of the bitterly contentious debates about the legality of the slave trade in Georgian England. Though still at its core a romance, as are most period films, Belle forces us to view history with complexity, neither as a flight of picturesque fantasy nor as an archaic world to damn for its prejudices. Tom Felton again plays a nasty villain, voicing the most disgusting thinking about race and assuming that Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is fair game because she is black. The cast also includes Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter).

The Butcher Boy - Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley) 
This deeply disturbing film follows Francie (Eamonn Owens), the son of a suicidal mother and alcoholic father, whose violent fantasies and obsessive friendship with another boy sparks an extreme hostility to the boy's mother, played by Shaw. With the very blackest of black humor, The Butcher Boy insists on the audience looking at the world from Francie's point of view, a bleak world where atomic apocalypse could occur at any moment and neither parents nor priests offer any protection. Fiona Shaw's brilliant performance is one among many here; other cast members in this film and the Harry Potter series include Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell) and Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody).

Camelot - Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore)
Sadly, Dumbledore would turn out to be Richard Harris's final role after a long, varied career on both stage and screen. For those who grew up on Harry Potter, it is a rather disorienting but nevertheless charming pleasure to see Harris, at thirty seven, singing (!), as King Arthur in the Lerner and Loewe musical film. He is joined by the perfectly cast Vanessa Redgrave, as Guinevere, and Franco Nero, a bit awkward but not unlikable, as Lancelot. The movie takes a generally lighthearted approach to Arthurian legend and the songs are catchy and fun. Best of all, this film has some of the best jousting scenes of cinema. 

Contact - John Hurt (Ollivander)
John Hurt pops up unexpectedly in many films and I considered instead listing one of the animated films to which he has lent his voice, including Watership Down and Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings, but Contact is my favorite science fiction film of all time. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, the movie stars Jodie Foster as a scientist fiercely devoted to making contact with extraterrestrials. John Hurt costars as offbeat millionaire with his own motives for furthering her cause. Part of what I love about this film is that it explores with such depth the implications of making contact, both spiritual and scientific. 

Matilda - Pam Ferris (Aunt Marge)
Pam Ferris appeared in only the third Harry Potter film, but her role as the aunt that Harry accidentally blows up into a tweed-clad balloon is memorable to say the least. Ferris played another gruesome grown-up in this film based on the beloved novel by Roald Dahl, the Trunchbull, headmistress of Matilda's school and archenemy of all children. Matilda doesn't quite have the ghoulish sense of humor of the original book, but it's especially difficult to adapt Dahl novels given their comically horrific content; even so, Ferris, Danny DeVito, and Rhea Perlman give wonderfully vicious performances as horrible grown-ups.

The Remains of the Day - Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney)
Emma Thompson in particular has been in so many wonderful films that it was difficult to make a choice; she gives an especially subtle and complex performance in this adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel about the relationship between a butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a housekeeper (Thompson) who must confront, or fail to confront, the pro-Nazi politics of their aristocratic employers. This collaboration by producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of their best, a brooding, melancholic film, each frame pregnant with rich textures and details. Game of Thrones fans should keep their eyes peeled for a teenaged Lena Headey.

Restoration - David Thewlis (Remus Lupin) 
This period piece set during the decadent reign of Charles II (Sam Neill) stars Robert Downey, Jr. as a philandering physician who throws over his profession when, having saved the king's beloved spaniel, he is invited to court where he can array himself like a peacock, drink himself into oblivion, and have his pick of a half dozen girls at any hour of the day or night. David Thewlis plays his Quaker friend, who urges him to renounce his debaucheries and practice his gift for healing. The movie begins as a delightful romp, each costume more absurd and feather-bedecked than the last, but it acquires an edge of bitter seriousness as it begins to grapple with the fact of human mortality. Restoration offers everything one might wish from a period film, from exquisite costumes and wigs to forbidden romance and a window into the strangeness of the past.

The Secret Garden - Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall)
Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic has flown under the radar, perhaps because it takes a rather adult approach to a book intended for children. Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock, the sour housekeeper whose deference to duty has through long habit become a self-satisfied martyrdom to her work. From Smith one expects, and always gets, a brilliant performance, but the child actors in this film, especially Kate Maberly as Mary Lennox, are extraordinary and the cinematography by Roger Deakins and Jerzy Zielinski is stunning, rendering the gloomy moors and overcast skies of England exquisitely lovely in their moodiness.

Sense and Sensibility - Gemma Jones (Madame Pomfrey) 
Ang Lee's exquisite film is the very best Jane Austen adaptation, its screenplay by Emma Thompson a literary masterpiece on its own merits. The story of the bereaved Dashwood family, the matriarch played by Gemma Jones and the daughters by Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Emilie Fran├žois, and their thwarted attempts to get the two elder daughters married to the men they love is told with a rare mixture of wittiness and melancholy. Also worthy of note: the soft and yet richly toned cinematography of Michael Coulter and the intimate, melodic score by Patrick Doyle. Besides Jones, other cast members in this film and the Harry Potter series include Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Elizabeth Spriggs (Fat Lady, in the first film), and Alan Rickman (Severus Snape).

St. Ives - Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy)
This rather obscure period film proves an unexpected delight with a story that blends madcap adventure, witty and flirtatious amours, battles and duels, a suspenseful tale of villainy thwarted, and more twists and turns than an episode of Game of Thrones. Based on a lesser (and unfinished) novel by Stevenson, the movie is a jolly romp through the Napoleonic Wars starring Jean-Marc Barr, Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter), Anna Friel, and Jason Isaacs, again playing a villain with panache. This film is more reminiscent of the period pieces of old Hollywood than those of today, expertly ranging from slapstick humor to tear-jerking tragedy in the tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Stardust - Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley) 
Mark Williams's part in this fantasy adventure film is small and easy to miss, but it's such fun when you recognize him that I had to include it. Williams plays Billy the Innkeeper, a billy goat transformed into a man by the hand of an evil witch, and he proves his comic acting chops. Stardust was neither a commercial nor critical success when it came out in 2007, which is a pity because it's a funny, fast, beautifully and colorfully designed fantasy replete with wit and unusually astutely applied CGI in a sea of bloated, boring, dark epics. The cast includes Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, and an unrecognizable Henry Cavill wearing a blond mustache. 

Suffragette - Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody)
This long-overdue dramatization of the English suffragette movement, suitably written, directed, and produced by women, is a salutary reminder of both how far we've come in a short time and how fast we could regress if we are not attentive. The film concentrates on working class women who had to risk far more than their upper class comrades and yet had far more to gain in order to obtain the vote and it fully succeeds in illustrating those risks - the loss of children, homelessness, the loss of a job, sexual violence, prison, starvation - and the gains - rights to divorce and child custody, a claim to equal wages, access to education, to state just a few. Gleeson plays the inspector assigned to infiltrate the suffragettes, destroying the movement, and his performance adds depth to a role that could have been simply that of a villain. The cast also includes Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange).

Vera Drake - Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge)
Mike Leigh's intense drama, which comes as close to seeing a play in a theater as any film I've ever seen, was, according to interviews, largely improvised by the cast, who developed their characters with Leigh and were only told what they were characters would know about the situation unfolding. Imelda Staunton stars in an outstanding performance as a giving, kindhearted working class woman who unbeknownst to her family performs abortions illegally. The camera is utterly nonjudgmental, it focuses on a face, a pot of boiling water, a shy couple on a sofa, with a serious open-mindedness that is rare in films on such subject matter. Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn) has a small role as a judge.

Willow - Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick/Griphook)
Warwick Davis has had more success than any other actor who has dwarfism ever has (though Peter Dinklage is fast catching up), but he has had few opportunities to play a lead role. Only a teenager when he starred in Willow, Davis proved himself more than capable of leading the cast of a major fantasy blockbuster. Willow Ufgood, a Nelwyn, discovers a Daikini baby and, realizing that the child is the prophesied savior of their world, he sets out on a journey to protect her from the forces of evil led by the Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). He is aided by the greatest swordsman who ever lived, played Val Kilmer with a ragamuffin charm. Willow is, hands down, one of the best fantasy films of all time. 

A Young Doctor's Notebook - Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter)
Lastly, I couldn't finish out this list without highlighting the quirky continuing career of Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to make films solely according to his own happily unconventional tastes. A Young Doctor's Notebook, based on writings by the Russian master Mikhail Bulgakov, is actually a television series, and not a film, but as it is comprised of only eight short episodes of about twenty minutes each, one could easily watch it in one longish evening. Radcliffe plays the younger version of a doctor, certainly convinced of his own brilliance and miserable at being assigned to an isolated country hospital, while Jon Hamm plays the older version, looking back at his younger self, and horrifically addicted to morphine. The series has a very black sense of humor, blending British and Russian sensibilities into a thorny brew of the bitter and ridiculous. 

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