Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When Phoenixes Cry

Year: 2009
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The Harry Potter film franchise is a lot like a series of Craigslist missed connections: “I caught a glimpse of a decent subplot but it vanished when I turned back.” I was excited to spend time with a good director, but I hardly saw you at all.” “You farted on my hand and I loved it.”

Even with Order of the Phoenix, a movie I truly admired, there was always something incomplete about the Potter films, as opposed to the thrumming, fleshed-out universe of J. K. Rowling’s novels. But Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in the series, is something special. It’s the second longest flick in the flock, which doesn’t do it any favors, but it’s also the second film to have a director return to the world of Potter, allowing him to settle into and expand upon his original vision. The first time this happened, that director was Chris Columbus, and his reaction was to further embalm his mummified and dissected material so it would stay safe and dry forever and ever.

But this time we have David Yates, a man who isn’t exactly Orson Welles, but who is just as far from Ed Wood. His Phoenix is a perfectly adept, streamlined narrative with a keen creative eye and, allowed time to explore, his Potter explodes with distinctive vision. Whether that’s entirely his doing or the ministrations of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (the man behind Amélie) is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that Half-Blood Prince is aesthetically stunning, narratively secure, and emotionally vibrant like no Harry Potter film before or since.

This may have been rectified if they hadn’t cut Pigwidgeon out of Goblet of Fire.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in case you have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minded yourself and a portion of the relationship memories you erased included reading the Harry Potter books, is about the sixteen-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). After the events of Phoenix, the entire wizarding world knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort has risen again and his followers the Death Eaters are bent on destroying wizards and witches of impure blood and enslaving or killing the nonmagic folk known as Muggles. People are dying and disappearing, yet Harry – despite possibly being the only one who can stop Voldemort according to a prophecy – s only a boy and as such must return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and at least attempt to lead a normal life.

Over the course of the year, the Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) gives him a series of lessons on the history of Voldemort’s youth, mostly centering on a pivotal memory that he must collect from the sycophantic Potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). This memory may be key to destroying Voldemort and, luckily, a secondhand Potions book – property of the Half-Blood Prince – has scribbled hints in the margins that help Harry ace his class and get into Slughorn’s good graces.

Oh, and dare I mention… Hormones have cast their spell over Hogwarts. Cormac (Freddie Stroma) wants to get with Hermione, except she has unrequited feelings for Ron, who spends all his time snogging Lavender (Jessie Cave), who gets upset when a misapplied love potion causes him to fall for Romilda (Anna Shaffer), who desperately wants to get it in with Harry, who has to surgically reattach his lower jaw ever time he sees Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and I have a crush on Neville (Matthew Lewis), but not until his Attitude photo spread.

It’s like American Pie but with an easier entry point for wand puns.

I’m gonna cut right to the chase. Half-Blood Prince is the only Harry Potter flick to be a truly great movie. As it deftly splits its attention between comic teenybopper romp and an out-and-out siege movie, it actually becomes the only film to actively improve upon the source material in any respect. The less constricted perspective of the cinema frees it to more effortlessly juggle those wildly disparate tones, allowing the bright glow of youth to contrast sharply with the constant, imminent cloud of danger outside threatening to snuff it out.

Every aspect of the film is in service to this oh so delicate balance. It’s a good thing too, considering the gargantuan tonal lurches the script asks the film to make, sometimes in the space of a single cut. Without Delbonnel’s master class sharp-shooting, the entire performing arts sector of the British Isles pulling out all the stops (and pushing in a couple gos for good measure), and David Yates allowing his taps-running Britishisms to fill in the cracks with a sly sense of humor, Half-Blood Prince could very easily have collapsed under its own weight like a house of cards that dedicates its third season to nuts and bolts policy-making instead of sexy Kevin Spacey murder.

But we’ll get into that in a second. What I’m really dying to bring up is the screenplay, the fifth to e written by Potter squatter Steve Kloves. I suppose that after four tries, you’re bound to get in a good one eventually. If an infinite number of Steve Kloveses hacked randomly at an infinite number of J. K. Rowling novels, eventually one would produce a coherent, self-contained script. But boy is it a good’un, an entirely legible narrative with hardly a kink. Voldemort’s backstory is the only cut bit that suffers in any way, rendering a key scene in the third act a little logically muddy, but third acts were hardly Rowling’s strong suit to begin with. As an act of adaptation, Half-Blood Prince is a pristine piece of work chock full of logical character progressions, recognizable story arcs, and a more purposeful forward momentum than even the novel can boast.

Enjoy the book as I do, it’s mostly just Harry reading in bed and trying to hide his boners.

Perhaps the most striking element of Half-Blood Prince is its aesthetic, which relies heavily on an autumnal scheme, all earth tones and scattered leave, to really drive home the point that the lives Harry and his friends used to lead are drawing to a close, one way or another. The end of school is drawing near, and the big bad world (which is now more than ever trafficking in horror imagery) is waiting to swallow them up. It’s a fantasy nightmare vision of senior year, really, and when it’s not being meaningful it’s content to be just plumb breathtaking. There are no single shots in the entire franchise more staggeringly beautiful than Aragog’s funeral, the confrontation on the hill, or Dumbledore’s whirling inferno of flames (also a fabulous integration of CGI), which combine wide framing and dazzling bursts of color to pants-soiling effect.

The cinematography is endlessly adaptable, ranging from the minutely playful (Dumbledore’s winking entrance) to the operatically grandiose and gorgeous [SPOILERS One of the final shots of the film – in tribute after Dumbledore’s death, the students and staff raises their wands into the air, blasting apart Voldemort’s Dark mark with beacons of light. It is the dawn of a new era of Harry Potter, both in terms of visceral emotion and visual abandon]. If I could elope to Vegas with any movie’s mise-en-scene and have a brief but fiery love affair, it would definitely be Half-Blood Prince.

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Second in command is the acting. Of course, by this point, you already know that the massive stable of adult actors that frequently waste their talent on fifteen-second scenes of eating dinner while wearing funny hats are pretty much unimpeachable, so I shall only highlight one key performer: Michael Gambon. The role of Dumbledore has been quite a journey for him, having taken over following the untimely death of Richard Harris after Chamber of Secrets. After three years of worrying at the part like a dog with a bone, he is finally in command, following his own inscrutable, tweaky path as the immeasurably harming, incredibly baffling headmaster.

And after a veritable Black Diamond slope of peaks and valleys, our three child performers (by this point all full-grown adults) have all finally outdone themselves, turning in their absolute best work. Their chemistry is warm and lived-in (as well it should be, after eight years of this nonsense), their lines readings are reeled back from the heady brinks of shrilldom, and their eyebrows are safely locked away where they can’t cause any more harm. Just like the human body, a film with a strong core helps everything else grow stronger, and Half-Blood Prince is an all-around beefcake.

With the franchise’s two characteristically weak elements (child acting and storytelling) finally firmly in place, this allows the film to go places none of its predecessors have before. When it’s funny, it’s laugh out loud hilarious, and when it’s serious, it bludgeons you with the force of a troll’s cudgel. This is the first Harry Potter that can outright be called a comedy without a whiff of fine print, but it also has the power to get you cowering behind your couch cushions in terror. 

It’s that good.

Now obviously, it ain’t perfection on a stick. The next movies are gonna have to do some real legwork to make up for lost narrative ground (we’re talking large scale here, the movie is still perfectly self-contained as hell), and a couple late reveals are about as tense as announcing what restaurant will be catering your bar mitzvah. Oh, and there’s one truly egregious editing trick that tries to drive in the horror of a situation by making sure you can only see it in millisecond chunks. 

But what the hey, this is the movie business. If you want perfect product, just rewatch Airplane!. Half-Blood Prince is an impeccable Harry Potter movie, it is my favorite Harry Potter movie, and if you had to pick out only a single DVD from the towering HP stack, do yourself a favor and grab this one. Thank me later.

TL;DR: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a wonderfully crafted teen fantasy, delicately combining teen hijinks and tense siege drama.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1714
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates, 2009)

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