Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Half-Blood Prince was always my least favorite Potter book. Why? Because our main protagonist sits by the sidelines for about five hundred pages while his best friends snog each other. The most action-packed moments of the story happen at the very end or in flashbacks, and Harry Potter loses almost all of his agency, a flaw that plagues the series for the first three hundred pages of the final book as well. Rather than actively seek out adventure like he used to, Harry listens to Dumbledore regale him with adventures from the past. To be fair, important information is revealed, information critical to the conclusion of the Potter series, but a writer as skilled as Rowling could have easily tied Harry more closely to the forward progress of the narrative, acting as the detective rather than an ancillary stooge.

Somewhat ironically the sixth Harry Potter film shines as one of the best in the series, utilizing the book’s narrative malaise as a way of depicting the young wizard’s growth into manhood. In previous Potter films the set pieces had been so bombastic and distracting there was hardly the time to get to know the characters beyond a series of pithy remarks, but director David Yates skillfully utilizes the natural awkwardness of his young actors to create intertwining romantic plotlines that are both hysterically funny and touching. Despite the dark dealings surrounding Hogwarts in this story, the character relationships provide some of this summer’s finest comedy, perhaps with the exception of Pixar’s Up.

It’s hard to fault an adaptation that takes a stagnant story and brings it to vivid life, especially with such incredible camerawork and visual effects. There are certain shots, like the characters peering down from the rafters of the Weasley house and the early Death Eater assault on London that rival Oscar-worthy cinematography. That being said, there are occasional pacing problems, mostly the result of the adapted work itself than botched screenwriting. The script is piping with life and character, and thanks to some clever usage of love and luck potions, we get to see new sides of Harry and Ron that allow the actors behind them to really have some fun.

Visually stunning, emotionally honest and somehow still very grounded, this movie steals the crown from Prisoner of Azkaban. I almost wish Yates had directed the Goblet of Fire, but it’s clear from his previous attempt in the series, Order of the Phoenix, that he definitely needed a warm-up before he nailed it.

Potter fans can look forward to TWO upcoming movies, as the final story “Deathly Hallows” will be broken in twain as a way to further drain the bank accounts of loyal fans. It’s an unsurprising move fiscally, but a truly moronic one in terms of narrative. The first three hundred pages of Deathly Hallows suffer from a Potter without agency and mostly revolve around the three central characters bickering in the woods until some ancillary sidekicks miraculously reveal information pertinent to the central quest. I’ve joked previously that the last two books flail aimlessly because of Rowling’s own inability to neatly wrap up the massive and incredible universe she’s created. But even George Lucas gave us a Return of the Jedi (and those damnable prequels [and Indy 4]). Deathly Hallows has a tremendous ending full of heart, revelations and a huge destructive battle. Surely that’ll make for some really swell filmmaking. At least in Part II.

Grade: A

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Summer Movie Round-Up ’09: Part 2

Talent v. Tantrum

I haven’t been able to catch too many more flicks recently thanks to a torrential downpour of stupidity in my work and social life, so I unfortunately have nothing to report on the Harry Potter front. I’m very excited for HP6 though, as I’ve heard tell that it’s the best in the series.

Public Enemies – A lot of people give Michael Mann a hard time for using shakey-cam on a period piece, but I really dug it. If you’ve never seen a Michael Mann movie before, you probably would be shocked to realize that Public Enemies is not an action movie, disappointed even. I know many of my comrades in the theater felt that way. Not me though. I loved every brilliantly calculated frame of this movie. Sure there’s no jaw-dropping performances or real moments of drama, but this is an art film in the basest sense. Mann uses his actors as puppets to convey an overall message, that John Dillinger’s celebrity benefitted the public more than his death ever could. This is not an intricate character study of a man’s life. Rather, it is a depicition of a man on his way down the mountain, a glimpse at the simplicity and humanity of a person who could have been any of us. He just robbed banks and murdered people too.

It’s not hard to root for Johnny Depp in any role, and I think that’s the point of making him an everyman murderer. As opposed to co-star Christian Bale’s intricately satiric portrayal of an American Psycho, Depp makes Dillinger’s lifestyle seem almost plausible. The villains of this movie are the agents of the American government, sworn to uphold the nation’s laws and protect its citizens. Even when he kills people, Depp’s Dillinger never appears to be shaking the sheets of society in a chaotic way. He simply gives society a thrill in an otherwise sepia-toned existence. The real chaos ensues when Bale’s FBI agent chases down and brutally murders a wanted felon in an apple orchard. The rich colors and scenery contrast the brutality nicely. The natural order is tainted by his presence.

There has to be something deeper at work here than Mann simply urging us to root for the bad guy, and I believe there is. When Bale and Depp finally collide at the film’s end, there is a deadening silence that follows. That silence is the absense of personality, as if the color has literally been drained from American living with the death of one of its most iconic citizens. Can a man make life worth living through murder? This is the question Mann asks the audience in the film’s conclusion, as further evidenced by the post-script about the fate of Bale’s real-life counterpart.

This film’s greatest mistake was its release as a summer movie. It could have done a lot better for itself in the fall or in the push toward award season. It’s a bare-bones art film, not a shoot ’em up. For that, it may be forgotten by the summer crowds in place of bigger noisier entertainment. I’ll always remember it as a beautiful and surprisingly quiet thinkpiece with shades of commercial interference, and as the movie whose set I broke onto last summer to audition for my first paid acting gig in Chicago. For that alone it deserves the Grade: A.

Bruno – I really wanted to like this one, folks. I really did. Sasha Baron Cohen is probably my favorite modern comedian (or at least was) and I’m a Borat apologist even in spite of the douchey frat guy quoting sandstorm that accompanies all popular comedies (I’m looking at you, Family Guy & Austin Powers). Thankfully (or maybe not) there’s nothing worth quoting in SBC’s latest movie, a gay-joke wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a velcro suit that barely bothers to scratch the surface of satire before diving back into the depths of MAD TV level vulgarity.

It’s not that the movie isn’t funny. It is occasionally laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The problem is that the laughs, like everything in the movie, are incredibly shallow. While SBC characters Ali G and Bruno had the ability to prolong their interactions with interviewees because of their brilliant blend of innocense and ignorance, Bruno is such an obnoxious asshole that no one is willing to defend him, whether they be gay, straight, Austrian or American. All of the “skits” in Bruno seem staged or rushed, as if the humor of the concepts was thought to outweigh the lousiness of the outcomes and there wasn’t enough time to reshoot anything. Is it really funny to see Ron Paul become slightly uncomfortable while a straight man performing a gay stereotype strips naked for him? I guess. But is it funnier than Bob Barr’s look of panic and disgust when he realizes he just ate cheese made of breast milk from Borat’s wife? The brilliance of Borat is that all of his disgusting habits and beliefs could be chocked up to cultural differences, so people would struggle to keep things diplomatic despite all reason. While Borat’s backstory was as contrived and jokey, it was quickly established that this character comes from some place where his absurdity is perceived as normalcy, that in some strange fictional universe Borat is the everyman. Bruno is just too unlikable to function as a fish out of water. His backstory is too shallow to allow for him to ever function as an everyman in any situation. It’s hard to imagine a situation where Bruno is well-liked, especially in the Austrian gay community. As a result, SBC resorts to cheap, tired and repetitive Hitler jokes in between dropping his pants and saying something gross.

I really thought that a Bruno movie could surpass Borat in terms of cultural impact. While the original Borat sketches on the Ali G Show were at times funnier and more brilliantly satiric than anything that happens in the Borat movie, the movie did a great job of exposing American xenophobia in a gung-ho patriotic post-9/11 world. Whether SBC realized it, America needed Borat to poke fun at them so they could start to laugh at themselves and relax a little. When I heard that Bruno would be getting his own movie, I was overjoyed. Surely SBC could build off the satiric momentum of his last movie, and attack homophobia on a worldwide scale, forcing the ignorant to come to terms with their outdated and illogical beliefs. Instead Bruno’s homosexuality is the biggest joke of all, reaffirming the stereotype of the outrageous flaming homosexual without providing the counter-balance of depth to make him seem like a real person.

In the original skits on Ali G, Bruno was an innocent thrust into unlikely situations. When Bruno went to a gun convention in the American south, you feared for SBC’s life not because of how ridiculously he behaved but because of his quiet yet honest pride in his lifestyle. For the movie, SBC redesigned Bruno to parody the self-indulgent American fame-seekers with nothing to offer society, the Paris Hiltons and Spencer Pratts. What SBC was too short-sighted to see is that America’s greatest pop icons are destined for their own brutal demise without his help. Britney Spears, Elvis, even the late Michael Jackson metamorphosized from edgy icons to media monsters thanks to the press and public’s goading. We as a culture are aware of how stupid Paris Hilton is, and we like to laugh at her. That’s the reason why she’s famous, and that’s the reason why The Hills is so popular. Those dumb enough to actually fantasize about being these vapid trollops will one day become them, and thus the cycle begins anew with younger, hotter sexier fools to entertain the court. In parodying American obsession with celebrity, SBC satirizes something too innately shallow to care about, and the resulting movie does more to make him appear as self-indulgent and imperceptive as the stars he’s mocking.

The real death knell of the film happens at the very end. Bruno enters a California marriage office and tries to procure a license for himself and his lover. Rather than poking fun at the absurdity of repealing Prop 8, Bruno brings his lover in drag and tries to convince the man at the counter that his lover is actually a woman. Funny? Maybe when it was topical. You know, back when Some Like it Hot was released. In some ways, Bruno is the perfect representative for the fashion industry. He’s constantly all dressed up with nothing to say. (Sorry Ms. Klum.)

Grade: D-

Summer Movie Round-Up ’09: Part 1

The Mecca of Movie Entertainment
The Mecca of Movie Entertainment

One of the greatest things about living in Los Angeles is that I reside next to some of the coolest movie theaters on the planet. The Arclight on Sunset is incredible, but I’m dead center between the Grove Multiplex, the Fairfax Mildewplex, and the New Bev. Usually, I don’t have to walk very far for big screen entertainment. But this week I got the opportunity to revisit the Landmark in Westwood and visit the Arclight for the first time. Both incredible theaters, both with incredibly stupid assigned seating. I feel extra sorry for the poor schlub employees who try in vain to force people into their numbered seats. No thanks. This ain’t Dodger Stadium. And even then, I’d be moving down after people cleared out in the fourth inning. If it ain’t about a window seat, I don’t need an annotated touch screen is all I’m saying.

I used to write a lot about the movies I’ve seen, but I’ve gotten into the bad habit of simply tweeting about it without giving you graphic detail. Here’s a summer movie round-up for all the films you may have missed:

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Action Figures – This movie is not as bad as everybody says, but in the same vein as Spider-Man 3 it’s so loud in its badness that it’s hard to ignore. Giant robots with testicals aren’t exactly brilliant subtlety. However, this movie should be credited for having Megan Fox occasionally onscreen. True, she gets humped by a Decepticon but rather than judge, I choose to live my life vicariously through said robot. I have to give them credit. They made senseless violence look damn convincing and almost exciting enough to care about, whenever you could tell what was happening.

If the first Transformers was stupidity wrapped in crap and giant robots, the second one is a somehow longer crap, minus Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight and the Australian Chick. You’d think that’d make it better, but it’s not much. There’s one bad jump cut in particular, when Isabel Lucas ditches Shia after the party that looks so amateurish that I wished the robots from MST3k were there to teach Michael Bay a lesson. Where does he get off crafting three-hour multi-million dollar crapfests when I’m stuck blogging better ideas in my sleep! In fact my 347 page draft of Beast Wars: Return of Dinobot gathers dust on the desks of agents around the city! It’s ludicrous, I tell you!

But if you want a really great, really racist giant robot movie this is the one for you. Everyone hambones the idiot sambots but I think the painfully stereotypical Asian music in the opening fight sequence takes the racist cake. An old man is eating a meal. GIANT ROBOTS BURST THROUGH HIS HOUSE! He is slightly startled! (and like most “comedic” moments in this movie, the bit falls flat faster than the jetpack-hamburgers in Minority Report). Because Michael Bay doesn’t want anyone to miss a “laugh,” he adds in four seconds of audio-racism, reminding the audience that Asian characters in his films are stereotypes first, people second. That being said, I do recommend that everyone sees this movie on the grounds that it’s something we can all hate this summer minus seemingly essential components Heidi & Spencer.
Grade: D-

Whatever Works – Larry David is a fine successor to Woody Allen, but the story surrounding him is not. While I’ll be a fan of Woody no matter what kind of crap he schlocks out, this one is only watchable from the perspective that you’re either a huge fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm or are a decade long Woody Allen apologist. In terms of bad Woody Allen it’s a little worse than Scoop only in that Woody’s never on camera, but it’s decades better than Melinda & Melinda, a film that could never decide whether it was an unfunny comedy or a lackluster tragedy. It’s worth it to see Larry David monologue clever Woody Allen quips, but it would almost be better to ask Woody to write a Curb at this point than expect the guy to invent a new universe as blissfully chaotic as that one. Say what you will about genius. It doesn’t always age well.
Grade: C+

This is the only New Moon you should care about

Moon – Duncan Jones’ Moon is a technical masterpiece as well as an actor’s thinkpiece. You will believe a man can act as Sam Rockwell brings introspective dialog to new heights, tapping into the subtle changes that manifest after three years of solitary confinement. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, for as predictable as my friend Elizabeth thinks it is, I believe there’s a whole sector of the populous who never enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien in their youth and would be wowed to know that good science fiction actually exists. Not only that, it’s good science fiction that’s well acted. Battlestar Galactica, eat your heart out. While Rockwell exudes Han Solo-like enthusiasm at times, this is hardly a bombastic film. Still an effects-driven space opera, Moon is more focused on proving its humanity to the viewer than satisfying mankind’s natural desire for explosions and bouncing breasts. Simple moments like a high-five take on new meaning in this universe, and that’s enough to promise a second viewing from this reviewer. (Also, Kevin Spacey is a robot who communicates through smiley faces. Hell yes.)
Grade: A

The Hurt Locker – The problem with The Hurt Locker is not that it has a bad message, or that that message is badly delivered. Its only flaw is that the message is one we’ve heard as a nation time and time before, that only a certain breed of man is cut out for the armed forces and that man must behave like a fearless demigod. While I have no doubt that our armed forces are packed with men and women with this sort of macho take-no-prisoners attitude, the stark realism of the film’s environs present a depressing image of the American soldier. Even at his best in combat, the soldier is subject to so many horrors that the nature of his duties seem unfair to inflict upon any American citizen. The result is the sort of gung-ho patriotic message you might expect from this summer’s upcoming G.I. Joe or Team America: World Police. “Be the impossible in any circumstance,” the movie suggests to its viewers, “even situations that don’t warrant it and might possibly make you look like an asshole.”

In the same way that the past two Batman films strove to make the superhuman practical, Hurt Locker attempts to make the American soldier a superhero, rising above the call of duty no matter the cost. Of course this results in some needless breaking and entering, some mistaken identity, and some occasional friendly fire, but that’s the nature of the beast for a bomb specialist. While skilled at showing the reality of the characters’ external struggles, director Kathryn Bigelow occasionally misses the mark when attempting to display their inner turmoil. There is nothing particularly emotional about this film, which is a shame considering how high the stakes are. Otherwise this is another brilliantly shot technical masterpiece that forces us to relive the anxiety that we’ve ignored for the past few months thanks to recent celebrity deaths and imminent economic collapse. Our soldiers are still living a nightmare in a foreign land, never certain whether they’ll live to see another day. Whether brave or riddled with fear these men deserve to know that coming home means they made a difference.
Grade: B+

That’s all the time I’ve got for now. Stay tuned for more movie reviews! So far Star Trek and Moon are my favorites this summer, although Bruno is fighting for that position pretty hard (gay innuendo unintentional). I didn’t see Terminator but I guess I’ll just have to settle for seeing the OTHER Christian Bale movie this summer, Public Enemies. I broke onto the set of that movie in Chicago, which is undoubtedly one of reasons it’s getting such lackluster reviews. I swear, I didn’t mean to be such an anachronism, but I really needed to finish playing Tetris on my phone. In case I don’t see ya, have a Happy Fourth of July!