Saturday, November 27, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (5/5)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with several Death Eaters, flying through the air while enveloped in plumes of dark mist (like the children of Lost’s smoke monster), wreaking havoc in the world of muggles. Not only do they bust up a magic shop, but they also down a bridge in London, killing untold numbers of pedestrians. If you had any doubts that The Half Blood Prince would continue the sinister atmosphere of the previous installments, then the first few moments of the film should put those doubts to rest with a swift knock to the head. This time out Voldemort is at full power and his minions have free reign over their world and ours.

Each Harry Potter film contributes one piece to the overall puzzle regarding Voldemort’s past and Harry’s role as his Achilles heel (or would he be the arrow that can pierce the Achilles heel). In The Half Blood Prince the new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn, holds that next piece. Dumbledore recruits Slughorn for the upcoming school year in hopes that he will divulge a conversation he once had with Voldemort, known at the time as Tom Riddle, before his transformation into pure evil. Slughorn views his job as more than just a teacher in a classroom. He also establishes a coterie of young wizards and wishes who he believes it is his duty to fashion into adults. Harkening back to an earlier time, Slughron is the type of professor who would call the special something he recognizes in these students as “character.” In a bit of espionage, Harry must creep his way underneath Slughorn’s wing in hopes to uncover the secret conversation.

This time around, the melodrama of high school dating is pushed to the forefront, but unlike in previous films these aren’t moments the viewer must endure to get to the world of magic but rather enjoyable in their own right. The appeal of the Harry Potter series has always been its marriage of fantastical adventure with the everyday drama of grade school. But until The Half Blood Prince the quotidian half of that equation has always paled in comparison to the otherworldly. One of the joys of this lengthy series of films has been the evolution of the three main actors from passable children stars to the ideal embodiment of their characters. The Half Blood Prince also provides all three actors some great ensemble and individual moments to work with. Much of the high school plotline stems from a love triangle between Hermione, Ron and Ron’s new squeeze Lavender. Just as Hermione has come to realize her feelings for Ron, he has found someone new. (Although, I just can’t picture those two getting old together. I imagine Ron wearing a wife beater in front of the television while Hermione fetches him another Natty Light from the fridge). Harry, likewise, reaches the age where he’s ready to start dating, but has yet to recognize Ginny Weasley’s longtime crush on him.

Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of The Half Blood Prince is how the minutia of high school life becomes a major plot point. We all remember the used textbooks that were seemingly passed down from time immemorial and filled with scribbling, often obscene, of different penmanship. Well, Harry discovers one such used textbook for his Potions class that contains perfections on even the textbook’s recipes as well as some other magical tips. As a reader, I absolutely love the central place books take in the world of Harry Potter, from Tom Riddle’s diary to the importance of the library (Hogwarts just wouldn’t be Hogwarts if they had the internet). As a blockbuster children’s author, J.K. Rowlings appears to be establishing physical books as objects of value that are just as magical as any spell or potion.

The Half Blood Prince is the film where all of the elements of a Harry Potter film—the ingenious magic spells, the battle between forces of good and evil, the childhood romance—all finally come together, like a supernatural potion, into a perfect brew. The genius of J.K. Rowling is that, instead of writing sequels for a new wave of eight year olds every other year, she let her books mature with her audience, allowing her characters, plot and prose all grow along with the children who may have read the first book when they were even younger than Harry in his first adventure. In The Half Blood Prince, for example, the character of Draco Malfoy, who had always been a nasty little pipsqueak, must decide whether he is more loyal to Hogwarts or to the Death Eaters. In earlier installments it was always clear that Draco served as one of the villains, but as the stakes have risen, even the more wicked characters have trouble contending with the consequences or their actions.

Likewise, with each installment the films have displayed stunning visual complexity to match the emotional density. And the visuals for The Half Blood Prince are perhaps some of the best of the series. The director, David Yates, utilizes the byzantine angles of Hogwarts castle to cut and dissect the space between multiple characters, illustrating the levels of intrigue that are simultaneously occurring at the expansive Hogwarts compound. The framing owes much to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, another film that takes place within the cold confines of a castle. The color palate of the film mimics a daguerreotype tan, giving the movie an atemoporal timelessness. The world of Hogwarts has always been a bricolage of differing time periods, combining medieval signifiers, like wizards and castles, with memorabilia from the 1940s. To move from the world of the muggles to the world of magic is as much a movement in time as it is a movement in space.

It is often cited as a critical truism that The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the series (although, this is not necessarily the case for fans of the book). I can understand why so many critics make this assertion, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is indeed one of the top films of the series, but I truly believe that The Half Blood Prince takes the prize for the best film in the franchise. Azkaban is a success for two reasons: 1) it was the first instance of a textual and emotional maturation of the series and 2) the film stripped away much of the grade school drama that had gummed up the works in past installments, making the first Harry Potter film that felt like a large scale blockbuster, even if its running time was slightly shorter. The reason why The Half Blood Prince is an even better film than The Prisoner of Azkaban is because instead of hiding from some of the soap opera elements of past installments, the film chose to strengthen those aspects of the story, making the viewer just as concerned with who Harry might end up dating as they are with whether or not Harry and Dumbledore will find the correct enchanted object to stop Voldemort. With the sixth film in the series, director David Yates has finally positioned Harry Potter as a fantasy world of cinema to be considered alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and The Princess Bride. You might disagree with whether or not these films deserve a place next to these esteemed films, but as the series draws to a close it is impossible to ignore their place within the genre of fantasy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (4.5/5)

When last we left our hero, Harry Potter, he had just faced a newly repowered Voldemort 2.0. So it’s a puzzling turn of events when Harry returns to Hogwarts only to discover that he has been branded a liar and that Voldermort’s existence has been vehemently denied by the Ministry of Magic. Harry’s role as an inventor of canards has turned him into an outcast at Hogwarts where the other students look at him askance and openly doubt his story. But even as the Ministry denies the impeding threat, a secret organization called The Order of the Phoenix has set out to defend itself against Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

There are duel villains in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not only must Harry worry about Voldermort from without, but he must also contend with the Ministry of Magic from within. As is often the case with a new Harry Potter film, there is also a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This time the new professor, Delores Umbridge, has been generously provided by the Ministry, and she immediately sets changes in the curriculum and the school rules. The Ministry is fearful that Dumbledore is amassing an army of teenagers, so Umbridge does away with all experiential learning, prohibiting the students from using magic in class and relying on textbooks alone.

Delores Umbridge is the type of villain who appears tailor made to get under your skin. She wears bright pink outfits that seem to have been shipped from the early 1960s. She always doles out punishment with a healthy smile on her face. And, she covers the walls of her office with the kinds of collectible plates you can buy at 2am on the Home Shopping Network. Of course, each plate depicts a mewling kitten that actually mewls. As far as movie villains go, Umbridge is once removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nests’s Nurse Ratchett. Characters like these are so self-satisfied with their type of oppression, often branded with a smiley face, that the audience cannot help but anticipate their downfall.

In response to Umbridge’s restriction on using magic, the Hogwarts students set up their own secret club where Harry, who has the most experience in battle, teaches his peers how to attack with and defend against magic. After years of Harry being used as a game piece in a series of long cons, it’s refreshing to see him and his fellow students actively prepare themselves against Voldermort and his minions. Not only does this underground magic club help groom Harry into a leader, but it also heals rifts between Harry and his classmates who had come to doubt his warnings about Voldemort.

Harry’s preparation for the battles ahead does not stop with a secret student organization. Dumbledore tasks Professor Snape with preparing Harry against mental incursions by Voldemort. It is still unclear exactly what the connection between Harry and Voldermort is, but it results in a psychic connection between the two enemies that may be used as a weakness. Snape’s training takes on the form of torture, similar to those in the military who undergo different “enhanced interrogation” techniques in order to inoculate them when they are employed by the enemy.

Snape has always been one of my favorite professors at Hogwarts, and it’s not only because of Alan Rickman’s commanding vibrato. Even in the earlier installments, where the line between good and evil was much starker, Snape was a character who ultimately did the right thing despite whatever darkness lingered in him. Here we are given a reason for why Snape is always in such a foul mood. During one of their interrogation sessions, Harry turns his powers against Snape and discovers, hidden in his memories, that a much younger Snape used to be an object of teasing and torture for Harry’s father. Instead of demystifying the character, this bit of back story actually further connects him with Harry. We understand that the two have a shared past, which extends before Harry was even born, and we now know both characters have similar demons festering inside of them.

As Harry admits to his godfather, Sirius Black, he has an anger growing in him. Sirius explains to Harry that there is no such thing as pure good and pure evil, that both exist within us and we must sort them out ourselves. This is a particularly touching scene because not only does it showcase a family connection between Sirius and Harry, but it allows Sirius to explain that he comes from a family of purists who looked down on mudbloods, children who are gifted with magical abilities but one or more of their parents are not magical. Sirius’s speech to Harry can be viewed as defining the difference between the first two Harry Potter films and the subsequent, darker installments.

The tighter structure of The Order of the Phoenix allies it with The Prisoner of Azkaban, which had a similar blockbuster feel. At times, however, it becomes apparent that The Order of the Phoenix had to amputate parts of the book in order to fit the film within the relatively short (for a Harry Potter film, that is) running time. There are many characters who are introduced but never fully positioned within the world. Many of these characters are members of the Order of the Phoenix, and because they serve as Easter eggs for the true fan and to supply depth to the universe of Harry Potter, reminding us that much more is going on beyond the halls of Hogwarts, these characters add rather than subtract from the film. (Although, in one awkward exchange a Goth looking witch tells Mad Eye Moody, without explanation, not to call her Nymphona for reasons that surely can only be deciphered by J.K. Rowling acolytes). However, other characters who occupy more running time appear to be shoehorned into the proceedings. Luna Lovegood, a witch who is a bit touched in the head, serves as a mirror to Harry’s own troubled past, but she’s lumped conspicuously into the story seemingly without reason. Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as Bellatrix Lestrange, the cousin of Sirius Black, is too small a part for such a well recognized actress. Both characters may be building towards something more important, but their inclusion here reminds the viewer that we are always receiving part of the story.

Despite the consistent quality of the Harry Potter films, they will always be, in part, companion pieces to the original books. The filmmakers are at once too deferential to the source material, afraid to discard with too much, and incapable of fully realizing the immensity of the books themselves. The Order of the Phoenix is as guilty of this as the other films, but ultimately it showcases one of the most propulsive plots in the series and ends with the most exciting climax yet. Perhaps it would be more than a tad greedy to ask for anything more.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (4/5)

Early on in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth adventure for Harry and his friends, longtime fans of the series will notice a distinct absence. Unlike in the past three films, The Goblet of Fire begins with Harry waking from a bad dream at his friend Ron’s house, rather than at Uncle Vernon’s suburban home. Alas, I cannot say I miss Uncle Vernon’s plump visage. Not only was he a domineering philistine, but Vernon also seemed like a cartoonish throwback to the first two installments. After the darker shades of The Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s difficult to see where Vernon might fit within the increasingly doleful series.

In many ways The Goblet of Fire fulfills the promises made by The Prisoner of Azkaban. Knowing that multiple directors have taken the helm of this series, I at first expected a radical swing in tone and style with each changing of the guard. I’ve been surprised to find that, despite the darker atmosphere in Azkaban, the evolution of the series has been deftly executed, suggesting a large amount of foresight. I’m sure much of the credit must go to the books. It is my understanding that Rowling let each installment grow along with her young readers.

The Goblet of Fire not only treads in a tenebrous atmosphere and storytelling, but it also manages to expand the scope of Harry Potter’s world outside the bounds of Hogwarts. We find that Harry is spending the night at his friend Ron’s house so that he can go see the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasley family. Here we are given a glimpse of the multitudes of wizards from around the world, from neighboring Ireland to distant Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the festivities are cut short when a legion of Voldemort’s followers, called The Death Eaters, make like quidditch hooligans and bust up the joint.

Back at Hogwarts, the school is gearing up for the Triwizard Tournament, an event where students from different schools compete in three tests of mental and physical acumen. The champions are chosen at random by a magical goblet that is perpetually ablaze. Each student who wishes to compete must write his name on a piece of paper and place it in the fire. On the appropriate day, the goblet will spit out the names of the chosen students. This year, however, only students seventeen or older may compete in the tournament (presumably getting insurance for the younger wizards is somewhat of a pain). A spell is even placed on the goblet to prevent those under seventeen from placing their names in the flame. And yet, when the time comes to choose the contestants, Harry Potter’s name is shot out of the goblet despite the fact he both never entered his name and was incapable of doing so.

How and why Potter was entered into the competition serves as the central mystery of Goblet of Fire, but, as with the other installments, Harry must also figure out the vagaries of growing up. The friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione is tested throughout. Ron becomes jealous of Harry when he is mysteriously entered into the Triwizard Tournament, and Hermione becomes miffed with Ron after he half-heartedly asks her out to the school dance. Not all of these conflicts are easily smoothed over, either. While Ron and Harry eventually come to an understanding, a similar truce is never made between Hermione and Ron. In fact Ron says a few things to Hermione that suggests he might be closet misogynist. Needless to say, strained friendships are a part of being a teenager. It’s to the film’s credit that the school dance is treated not so much as a rite of passage, but rather as the stiff and awkward social occasion that, for most, they are. Ron and Harry have difficulties finding partners for the dance, and when they do, it turns out the two boys are bad dates. Hermione attends the dance with Viktor Krum, one of the contestants in the Triwizard Tournament, but what could have been a resplendent evening turns ugly when Ron starts taunting her. Leave it to a Harry Potter film to avoid turning a middle school dance into an evening of magic.

Hogwarts once again hires a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Of all the rotating characters who have filled this position it is Goblet’s Alastar “Mad Eye” Moody who is perhaps my favorite. He gets his “Mad Eye” nickname from a false left eye that jets up and around, seemingly independent of its twin and capable of looking through the back of his skull (a useful skill for a teacher). Needless to say, he’s an eccentric character who shuffles about on a metal leg, tortures animals as a lesson for the class and brazenly takes swigs from his flask while in front of his students (my high school teachers at least hid their liquor in their morning cup of coffee). In other words, Moody seems like a fun guy to take on a night on the town.

Of course, the biggest surprise in the film is the final reveal of a fully recharged Voldermort. This time he’s not just some face on the back of someone’s head or a mystical projection. Without giving too much away, I will say that he is played with gusto by Ralph Fiennes. Interesting enough, one of the first things Voldemort does upon being released into the world is to go into a “what have you done for me lately” diatribe against his followers. When one of them protests that he helped Voldermort out of his exile, Voldermort sneers that this was done more out of fear than fidelity. I guess pure evil is codependence.

At the end of the film Hermione forlornly tells her friend, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” She might as well have been talking to the audience. As the films become increasingly bleak, it has become more difficult to tell where the story will take us. I for one, am curious to see where we shall end up.