“La La Land” (2016): In La Moment

La La Land is a film all about being stuck in the moment. Often, this is seen as a short-sighted trait. Being “in the moment” can easily be associated with being too wrapped up in any single scene rather than seeing the entire picture for what it is. A blinding experience of one particular bit that doesn’t account for the whole. Yet, the joy of La La Land is that it’s a series of escalating moments to be wrapped up in. Where each successive musical number, elaborate transition and intense dialogue scene feeds into a far greater whole. One in which the massive finale gives every previous enjoyable moment a more nuanced context that one couldn’t anticipate. The finale is so entrancing that – for a solid amount of time – I completely forgot I was even in a movie theater. The kind of mythological transportation that films desperately aspire to, but rarely ever achieve.

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La La Land chooses to gradually build up to that sweeping cinematic moment of wonder rather than go on a fool’s errand of attempting to keep that going consistently. Director/writer Damien Chazelle immediately plays to the more well meaning senses with “Another Day in the Sun” that goes for the technicolor spark of these LA dreamers subverted against the hue absent cold asphalt of a blocked up LA highway. It’s a wonderful number, but not one with much depth in theory. Same goes to the second number “Someone In the Crowd” that features people at a fancy LA party going ham about their the unpredictable fun of fate and chance as well as the extensive jazzy numbers that get us sucked into the passion of artists. All three numbers spotlight Chazelle’s daring attempts to try and keep everything going in a seamless uninterrupted single take. A dazzling light show full of color, mirth and hope that establishes a youthful unbridled energy that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling strive for.

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Yet, as we move along, there’s a darker thematic edge that persists. As we get past the tap dancing numbers and elaborate jazz pianos, we slowly come to the realization of how the struggles towards one’s dreams feature sacrifice, mainly on a personal level. That even success can get in the way of your initial goals in life. This is the part where the musical numbers stop, leaving the characters out to bare their souls in cold brutal fashion. The kind of fashion that Chazelle still manages to sneak elaborate colors into. There’s a heart wrenching dinner scene that features dark green hues which accent the distance between our leads. One who’s put it to the side potentially forever in pursuit vs someone taking such an amazingly daring risk to put themselves out there. A brutal honest discussion that turns La La Land from mere “Hollywood Creative Problems” into a frank look at people who are at a crossroads in terms of pursuing their goals.

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That delicate mixture of Hollywood showmanship and brutal emotional honesty is something hard to accomplish from an acting standpoint. Ryan Gosling provides the perfect amount of arrogant bluster and passionate intensity to get across his desire to bring back a dying artform like jazz. It’s the only way he can balance out Emma Stone’s honest earnestness and fretful worry over what her future in such a tough industry could be. Both show a certain amount of youthful exuberance that’s tempered by a sense of experience. They’ve been beaten up by this place for a while, yet aren’t quite bitter enough to let it completely destroy them. The two of them carry La La Land‘s raw energy and discipline dedication in stride. These are the type of roles meant for true movie stars and they carry the entire affair flawlessly.

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The only real issues to have with La La Land lie in some odd decisions towards the climax. Without spoiling, the entire film breaks apart the fairy tale idea of “Making It In Hollywood” as a very easy concept, even with however much work one puts into it. That there are no guarantees for success. Something especially relevant for Damien Chazelle after his previous brutally honest and unflinching work Whiplash. In a seeming contradiction, La La Land presents far more favorable odds to our leads. It seems a bit disingenuous for everything that proceeded, particularly from Stone’s side. Yet, miraculously, the masterful finale manages to put all of this – and the entire film – into context. Context that presents a Gene Kelly-esque elaborate fantasy sequence as an alternate outcome to a crucial time in both their lives. Not the better outcome, but a sweeping romantic memory of what could be based on their real previous passion. One that mirrors how we look back on our pasts with nostalgic fleeting memory, but with the knowledge that reality breeds some potential. Even if it is ultimately a movie-style outcome. It’s murky, but fitting for La La Land, a film that deals with fates of grey while dazzling us with remarkable technicolor style. The type of cinematic magic that dips its toes in reality just enough to give it more bite than being mere cinematic nostalgia. Enough to keep us wrapped up in in each successive scene until it crescendos wonderfully with the finale.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Jazz Piano Keys

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“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016): A New Perspective on a Galaxy Far Far Away

Star Wars returned to big screens last year with the seventh entry in the franchise The Force Awakens to massive box office success and mostly giant blanket critical praise. At the time, while I enjoyed the return to the world of Wookies & Stormtroopers, I was slightly disappointed by the familiarity of it all. While not as offensively slavish a remake of A New Hope as some made it out to be, Force Awakens still suffered from more than a few lingering threads of the “Like Poetry It Rhymes” though process of George Lucas that sunk many on the prequel trilogy. So, the idea of the first in a series of spin offs Rogue One: A Star Wars Story going back as close as it could to the actual era of A New Hope wasn’t the most enthusiastic idea for me. Nostalgia has so overtaken our culture that simply displaying a few TIE fighters and Darth Vader could easily seem like enough for Disney instead of developing something more. As a Star Wars fan since childhood, the idea of expanding in newer directions the films haven’t taken seems more interesting to me than revisiting the old. The hope would be that the first Star Wars film to not directly focus on at least one Skywalker Family Member would feature more engaging new characters fascinated me more than seeing AT-ATs again.

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The question going in really is can one be invested in these new characters knowing that their mission is a success? Luckily, Rogue One not only manages to get past that hurdle, but surpasses the very same attempts that Force Awakens moderately pulled off last year. By mostly keeping us entrenched in the story of this band of rebellion misfits trying to get these Death Star plans, we are fully immersed in the front lines of this conflict. With so many of these Star Wars films, we received small glimpses of people being shot in the head and falling over, casualties of war that were merely background extras as our leads stomped past Stormtroopers. Here, those casualties of war get a center stage as the Skywalkers are mere background mentions. We see rebel soldiers stand for what they believe in, even if it means going against the actual Rebellion organization. Rogue One is full of people with specific ideals they’re willing to die protecting, making their destination we’re aware of far more distant in the mind than the journey we see them on.

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Chief among these people is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of one of the Death Star scientists. The determination and bubbling anger provided by Jones for this character is one of the more nuanced performances in the history of this franchise. She has all the makings of a Rey from Force Awakens, given her own origin that involves being left behind by multiple different parental figures. After her initial set-up, Jyn is slowly developed through her actions as a character instead of having things spelled out for us. From the moment she is sitting in her jail cell to when her lip quivers in frustration while being interrogated, we get Jyn’s personality, arrogant and brimming with a desire to clear her name from the reputation of her father. Jones fills in so many gaps that aren’t blatantly told to us, allowing Jyn to vibrantly express the regret and rage over her life that tells us all we need. Her determination to seek out her father figures allows her to make peace with her past over the second half of Rogue One in a very emotionally resonant fashion.

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There’s a similar vibe that builds a solid rapport with the other members of the titular Rogue One team. We get a view mentions and glimpses of their roles & lives. Not enough to bog down our run time, yet just enough to keep us engaged in them as characters. There’s Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a dedicated yet conflicted rebel soldier who serves as a solid foil to Jyn in the issues of establishment both with the Empire and the Rebels. His robot aide K-2s0 (Alan Tudyk), a converted Imperial droid with a genuine emotional attachment to those who have faith in him beyond his appearance. K-2S0 is probably Rogue One‘s breakout character, with his quips evenly weighted with a surprisingly emotional pull from his loyalty and actions.

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Two stowaways of the spirituality enthused Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his loyal sharp shooter buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) are honestly the major highlights of this group. They’re by gone relics of an era where they were keepers of Jedi crystals, yet having varying issues on whether or not The Force even affects them as people. They show that The Force truly represents a religious tether that keeps those who feel disenfranchised attached to the world around them, making their eventual fates so investing. It brings the universe a bit closer without over explaining how The Force works like certain other prequel stories do. It’s the type of expansion of the universe that’s made stuff like the animated series Star Wars Rebels so impactful. It broadens our understanding of the universe by broadening our understanding of these people living in it.

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There’s more than a few other characters who are made more by their performers rather than their roles in the story. Rogue One has a pretty impressive cast that’s mainly there to service one of two threads storywise: the impact of Jyn & her main crew finding the Death Star plans and firmly connecting things to A New Hope. The efforts of Mads Mikkelson, Forest Whitaker and Riz Ahmed are more in the vein of the former, thus having more resonance. Whitaker in particular stands out in that fashion despite the brevity of his role. Though his decisions plot wise can often be questionable, the tics and raspy voice he uses add to the design of a man who’s been through intergalactic hell and will not stop in his quest for ultimate destruction of the Empire away from the Rebellion’s system that’s ineffectual. Yet, he also forgets about the concept in strength in numbers that Jyn believes in for destroying these evil forces. A strength in diverse numbers that holds this small rag tag group together enough to fly by the seat of their pants and hope things stick.

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That tug and pull of unstructured rebellion against a bureaucratic system is obviously keen in everyone’s minds and is shown with cold sterile subversion during the scenes involving the inner workings of The Empire. Unfortunately, these are the scenes where Rogue One falters most. The initially intimidating Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) loses steam as a villain by way of having his arc of realizing how little he matters in terms of the Empire’s ultimate path is weighed more in allowing  nods to the original Star Wars trilogy rather than him being a memorable villain. Nods like having Grand Moff Tarkin recreated from the late Peter Cushing’s visage in advanced but still sort of creepy CG or Darth Vader showing up to do a bit of force choking. The fan service-y moments are at least more plot focused than they are in Force Awakens, but call far more attention to themselves just for the sake of emphasizing how close this is to the original trilogy. To the point where they seem awkwardly edited into the overall story of Rogue One, particularly with the finale that includes little to none of the people we’ve come to know.

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The elaborate CG works far better when director Gareth Edwards uses them to unveil the detail in the Star Wars universe Rogue One inhabits. All these vistas feel more diverse than any of the worlds in Force Awakens, from shiny beach shores to rainy rock formations. Even the Mos Eisley-esque crowded city planet has a bit more diversity in terms of aliens and tightened corners that give it a distinct stench thanks to a meld of incredible set design and a mixture of practical & CG effects. Plus, the devil is in the war torned details as the Empire’s entrenchment is shown far and wide. It’s all perfect setup to show just how ineffectual the Rebellion’s efforts are up to that point, allowing a few rogues who have lived directly in the face of this suppression to know just how to attack from within with harsh impact. Edwards uses the scenery to make the later battle sequences all the more impactful. This is particularly evident when these people use their knowledge of their environment to battle the Empire from within, similar to the way we saw Luke Skywalker used his skills from Tatooine to fight off the Empire at their own game.

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However, the true strength of separation with Rogue One against the original trilogy is really its strength in a diverse number of non-Jedi folk. The more common everyday human, alien and robot beings who are united by a desire to be on the same even level playing field. It’s a message one can cling to in times of turmoil, which becomes all too familiar with our recent political climate in mind. While Rogue One doesn’t shatter new ground both for the Star Wars universe or our own in terms of fascist commentary, it’s a solidly entertaining war film that aims to showcase just how bold a rag tag group of like minded people from varying backgrounds can find common ground in a fight they can believe in. Even if their efforts turn south, their example can send a message of hope. A singular story that ties loose ends without over explaining their purpose. Rogue One shines us in a direction that we could really use right now, both in terms of injecting variety into a familiar universe and hope that we could use for our own futures.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Creepy CG Faces of Dead Actors

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Harry Potter Retrospective Part V: David Yates & the Phoenix Ordering Half-Deathly Hallows

So, we have reached the end of our retrospective. As I mentioned last time, this final examination of the last four films in the Harry Potter franchise was going to be truncated. As one could tell by how sporadic these updates were, other activities took up my time and distracted me from doing this regularly. So, I decided to pack all of the continued analysis into one article. There is at least an appropriate reasoning for connecting all of these beyond the obvious franchise umbrella. All of these films were directed by David Yates, who also returned to the franchise with the prequel series Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (which you can read my review of in that link). Yates’s previous career was mostly limited to British television before he directed Order of the Phoenix. Yet, he managed to take the influence from the work Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron & Mike Newell did with the first half of the franchise and formed the aesthetic of that would close the series… which mostly involved muted colors.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s probably the lasting element that carried over as far as style is concerned. Many a Harry Potter fan has attempted to justify the timeline of the books (which take place throughout the 90s, hence explaining why no one has cell phones) as the same era in the films. Yet, while hints of modernism existed in the earlier four films, Yate’s introduction firmly trounced that the moment Dudley starts scoffing against Harry in his mid-2000s era British chav wear. The sleek modern touch Yates brought appropriately places the oncoming threat of Voldemort into a landscape us Muggle viewers can fret about. Yet, he still doesn’t forget the fantastical world we grew to love. There’s still plenty of wonder and magic to be found, but the bleak circumstances make it those flourishes all the more magic. But let’s stop talking vague.

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Harry Potter And the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

While Goblet of Fire mainly focused on the society of the wizarding world crumbling apart under the surface, Order of the Phoenix is about Harry and his adopted family coming closer together. By this point, most of the story takes place outside of any classroom. We’ve moved to the corridors and crevices outside the realm of possibility, allowing people like Sirius Black and the Weasley family to feel even closer to Harry than ever before in the dark recesses of The Order. Harry helps save Mr. Weasley’s life and Sirius confides in Harry his utmost desire to give the boy a proper home. Harry forms a resistance group to fight off the threat no one in government is willing to admit. These bonds tighten here so they can be broken apart by outside forces and emotional destroy the audience emotionally.

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Such outside forces include the best of the Potterverse’s secondary antagonists Professor Dolores Umbridge. Played to cheeky passive aggressive majesty by Imelda Staunton, Umbridge represents everything that’s wrong with the Ministry of the Potterverse. She’s a snake in a pink facade. Behind her cheeky smile and exuberant attitude is a vicious racist attitude of old trying to suppress any sort of rebellion. Right from the moment where she punishes Harry, we know this woman’s cheeky attitude is a ruse to keep control. We also get a glimpse into the cold, titled decour of the Ministry of Magic for the first time, giving us a sleek modern visage of bureaucracy that rules over this world with iron clad precision. It’s the perfect reasoning for Harry to start Dumbledore’s Army, an action that shows just how down hill the rule of the Wizarding World has gone and promotes Harry to an actual place of action as the “Chosen One.”

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Still, these forces destroying the world aren’t as effective as the forces destroying the family Harry has built. The death of Sirius Black shouldn’t be nearly as brutal as it feels. We’ve only seen this character maybe thirty minutes of screentime, but Gary Oldman pulls out the right balance of headstrong dedication and warm compassion to make every word feel organic. When he assures Harry that he can stay with him, there’s not a shred of dishonesty there. It’s a warm small emotional moment that’s broken by Bellatrix in brutal fashion. Yates also gives Oldman a quiet ghostly exit that literally sucks out the sound. It’s the perfect emotional climax to unravel the delusion that things are alright in the Wizarding World. The thing that shatters any hope Harry had of having a normal home, leading to one of the more impressive duels in the series thanks to David Yates’ fight choreography. Truly, Order of the Phoneix takes the context of the book and adds much more engrossing emotional heart tugging to it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Pissed Off Centaurs

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Harry Potter And the Half Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is filler. Order of the Phoenix already firmly set us up to have Harry and his friends are tasked to fight off against Voldemort. That the entire Wizarding World would have to face off against him. Yet, we need to have another year long school story that’s barely even a story here just to get to the one moment that was so memorable it became a meme: Snape Kills Dumbledore. To be fair, the book this is based on was full of plenty of filler and even then the moment in question is well handled, mainly thanks to Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon‘s performances & Yates’ green tinted look that gives the film an extended sense of corpse shades dread. Still, this doesn’t make up for being treated to a lot more of the flighty teenage drama here, mainly with Hermione and Ron being confrontational over their love life pursuits. This isn’t like the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, which felt like a genuine empass of awkward teenage hormones. This just seemed like some sitcomish wackiness that feels excruciating for two and a half hours.

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Meanwhile, Harry sort of hunts down this titular “Half Blood Prince” mystery, but unlike the development that happens in the book, Harry just sort of uses it as a plot device to get on Professor Slughorn’s good side. Despite the best efforts of Daniel Radcliffe and Jim Broadbent in these moments, it doesn’t really amount to much of anything engaging. Just more set up for implied drug use via potions. So, when Snape makes his grand reveal… you’ve pretty much forgotten that Half Blood Prince was even involved in this plot. Oh, and Harry also starts his most baffling development in the timeline of these stories: his romance with Ginny. Ginny was never a character that seemed interesting enough to focus on at all past her brief plot relevance in Chamber of Secrets and here, the romance falls about as flat as it does in the books. Radcliffe has more chemistry with that waitress in the opening scene than he ever does with Bonnie Wright in the entire series.

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Honestly, the saving grace that keeps this tolerable beyond Dumbledore’s death is the actual lead up and how it manages to spotlight a rather underdeveloped character: Draco Malfoy. Draco prior to this wasn’t much more than sniveling pure blood Hitler youth, casting no doubts about his family’s ties to the Dark Lord. Yet here, there’s a worry about his grave task that makes him dimensional. A moment or two of palpable fear that makes his actions have weight and give Tom Felton more range to work with. It’s not a lot, but it’s the best string this has to swing on. Half Blood Prince is in such polar opposite to the powerful swings of Order of the Phoenix. While the latter took the source material to new heights of emotion and wizard dueling, Half Blood Prince guts the emotional context and boils it down to little.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Blackened Hands

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Now, if Half Blood Prince was filler, clearly this first half of the final chapter for the Harry Potter universe would obviously be wasteful, right? Every other time we’ve seen people split these final chapters up, it always feels unnecessary. Well, while Deathly Hallows Part 1 does seem long in the tooth, there’s at least a bit more reasoning to give this finale some breathing room. For one, the opening flying fight sequence. We get all of these characters together, only to see them turn into the literal title character of the franchise and split off to be chased by Death Eaters. It’s a vital way of setting up the stakes and a commentary on the guilt Harry feels at every turn as people are hurt in his name, something that will be extremely important come the climax of the next film.

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Yet, while we’re also highlighting the darkness inherent in this finale, there’s also plenty of quiet character moments that actually mean something. Whether it’s some of the humor of our trio sneaking into The Ministry of Magic or Harry & Hermione having their little dance to Nick Cave in the tent, we see these friends truly embracing each other’s company before things irrevocably change for all of them. Unfortunately, we do have to devote so much unnecessary time to a rift between Ron and Hermione & Harry that diverges so much time from more scenes like the dance. It’s another problem of adaptation, but this one more in keeping a useless storythread for the sake of filler. It’s not as confounding as the filler in Half Blood Prince, but still does mark this as a chapter that could have merely added an extra hour and change to the actual finale rather than totally justify the need for separation.

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Then again, the joy of Deathly Hallows Part 1 is that just as it starts to lose you, another tasty morsel comes in to satisfy. Probably the best example is the climactic animated sequence of the titular myth within the universe. It’s elegant and macabre in a way that sells the high stakes nature of all three items. It gives these magical objects far more powerful origins and destructive conviction. Same goes for the punctuation mark that is the finale, in which Harry, Ron and Hermione are saved at the last second by Dobby, only to see him die so suddenly. On the one hand, this is definitely less impactful than the book version given the amount of time we had with Dobby. Yet, by having him return here, he serves as a brief portal to the past, plugged by the shattering onslaught of modern change. Dobby’s death isn’t an empty one story wise. It gives us an appropriate cliffhanger moment of shocking sorrow we didn’t expect, allowing us to potentially be set up for the oncoming fest of feelings.

Rating 3 out of 5 Horcruxes

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Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Finales are tough. Once one gets past that fact that we have an ending, the expectations for it soar until they’re too close to the sun. Thus, setting up more than a fair share of disappointment. Filmwise, the second part of Deathly Hallows doesn’t suffer from lack of trying. We get a pretty full look into our larger recurring characters and their fates. Harry, Hermione and Ron get their fair share of moments, as do the likes of Snape, Lupin, McGonagall, Mrs. Weasely, Neville Longbottom and even Sirius Black & Dumbledore from beyond the grave. The trouble is, the true lack of development that was woven into the books plagues their attempted reveals in Deathly Hallows Part 2 cinematically. People like Tonks or Fred Weasley don’t have nearly the impact they’re striving for on an emotional level. They just sort of add up to Harry’s guilt that builds up to the climactic battle with Voldemort.

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However, even with most of its bountiful cast, Deathly Hallows Part 2 still manages to strike far more of a balance than anyone would have expected. The emotional highs and horrified lows our characters go through emotionally are incredibly well realized. There are too many to count but the main ones to highlight are Snape’s death, the Gringott’s dragon escape and Harry’s finale battle with Voldemort. Snape’s finale shows off Alan Rickman’s true range as an actor, emphasizing just how committed he was to seeing Snape to fruition. The dragon escape is a rousing way to start the film that immediately sets into motion the theme of escaping oppression. The finale not only allows Harry to earn his status as a Chosen One figure, but doing it on the terms of having his friends help. The deconstruction the The Chosen One trope in the Potter series always seemed to be an underrated aspect of the series. Harry isn’t a singular perfect being, but more of a leader able to recognize the talents of others.

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Even during his one-on-one battle with Voldemort, Harry knows he can’t actually accomplish this on his own. The entire series has been built on the strength of friendship. What friends do to help each other as things look their darkest. “Help will always been given at Hogwarts to those who deserve it,” Dumbledore says to Harry during his near death experience. A moment of realization that anyone who truly earns the friendships they’ve had will be able to find guidance from those closest. And that’s not just Hermione and Ron. Everyone from the rising hero of Neville Longbottom to the fallen anti-hero of Snape gave Harry the help necessary to defeat Voldemort. That even from the seemingly useless or lost souls can we find strength. Hogwarts may have been a school littered with perils and chaos, but it was able to bring people together of varying backgrounds who were united by a curiosity for magic.  The type of unity that gave Harry, Hermione and Ron the adventures of a lifetime and the chance to raise families of their own. And even if the three of them were poorly CG-ed to look older during the epilogue, that message still rings ever true.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Tears Into a Pensive

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Well, thanks for being so patient, folks. It’s been a long journey and we’re finally out of it. Happy Holidays and may… the magic be with you? Eh, I tried.

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