Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Harry Potter: the Half-Blood Prince is still in the Title.

I wrote an entry some months ago about how much I enjoyed the Harry Potter film series. The entry is pretty open-ended, and there is still much about the films to be praised, and (at the time of writing it) there are still 3 more films in the series. Now one of those 3 has been released, and I am ecstatic.

(images copied from Yahoo Movies)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is part six in the series (both book and film). The story picks up just a few weeks after the end of the last installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Despite going through what may have been the worst year of his life, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, always remarkable) is slowly but surely keeping his feet on the ground, and has shed some of his erratic behavior from the last movie. Now he seems to have a firm grip on what's going on around him, and it shows when, for the first time, he starts to realize his feelings for Ginny Weasly (Bonnie Wright), his best friend's sister.

The acting is spot on, as usual. The movie's primary newcomer is Jim Broadbent, playing Hogwarts professor Horace Slughorn. The character of Slughorn almost mirrors the mood of the movie overall. Slughorn is a very excited yet nervous person, whose naive (yet comedic) nature hides a dark secret he has yet to forgive himself for. Its the same as the rest of the movie, which has an ominous feeling overall, despite many moments of charming comedy. Jim Broadbent's performance is exceptional in capturing these moods and hidden emotions. The scene in Hagrid's hut has to be the centerpiece of Broadbent's performance.

A further kudos to Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore, his fourth time out. His performance as Dumbledore is always outstanding. The performance can be described as playing him like a drowsy sleepwalker who is always aware of everything around him. In words, that probably sounds like a criticism, but it is not. Especially in this movie, the character displays a sense of fear and ominous expectation.

What more can I say about Alan Rickman's performance as Severus Snape? Rickman is a remarkable actor, and he knows how to manipulate emotions in the strangest of ways.

A lot must be said for director David Yates, who's directing of the series has improved remarkably. Although Order of the Phoenix was very enjoyable, there were flaws which I minded more than the other films. I found the pacing of the movie 5 to be too quick, and some of the characters were given less screen time and development than before (in fact, book 5 is the longest in the series, while movie 5 is the shortest so far. Sadly ironic, don't you think?). But this time, Mr. Yates appears to have learned from his previous experience, and directed with a beautiful pace and careful timing for each character.

The characters of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have been given tremendous development. More than in the previous movie, here they really do support Harry, without drawing too much away from their own issues. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is given his biggest role in the series, as he is now made a part of Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters, but later revealed to be against his will. He is shown to be disturbed by the actions he is being forced to do, showing that despite his own bigotry, he is unwilling to act on them.

Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, terrific as usual) is given a bigger role than previously, as she goes from being introduced as the first female Death Eater to a rather vicious and devoted follower. Another newcomer to the series is Helen McCrory as Narcissa Malfoy, a role that is to be larger in the next installment.

Visually, the scenery is unchanged from the previous movies. But now, everything is colored differently, with an emphasis on gray. This is to show that the world is aware that something is wrong; that there is a storm coming. The attacks that start the movie (Diagon alley, and then the London Bridge) really set the tone. Bruno Delbonnel is the movie's cinematographer, and he does a nice job of giving the movie a lush yet slightly desaturated look.

Among the few minor complaints I have is the music. Nicholas Hooper, the film composer, worked on movie 5 and did a fantastic job. This time, however, much of the score, save for the very end of the movie, seems to be repeated from the previous film. I would have liked to hear some more alterations and new music for this film.

A second complaint I have is the placement of the scene where Snape makes the unbreakable vow with Narcissa Malfoy. It comes after we see Harry meeting Dumbledore at the beginning. I would have rather the vow scene come before we catch up with Harry, that way, we can maintain a sense of secrecy, outside of Harry's knowledge.

And finally, not much too go on here, but I think the Half-Blood Prince subplot wasn't focused on enough. It doesn't become significant until the end. I won't spoil it, but I will say its a moment of tragic irony.

All I can say now is I am super excited about the final two installments. These last two movies make up the seventh installment, as the producers saw fit to give the final book a really big sendoff. My thinking exactly. Much of the cast from throughout the series will be appearing, so everyone gets a proper sendoff or comeuppance. And looking at movie 6, I am confident David Yates will pull off an extraordinary finale.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Brüno: he'll turn you on, then turn you off.

Sacha Baron Cohen is one of the greatest living actors. That may sound over the top, but I firmly believe it. He may be cited as being primarily a comedian, but there is more to him than just being a funny man. I've always likened him to a persona like Groucho Marx, and a chameleon like Peter Sellers. But even in that case, Baron Cohen is something completely original and on his own. Even with his own characters, he has an uncanny ability to turn any role he is given into his own alter-ego.

Baron Cohen's chameleonic talents are presented again in another feature length film. Brüno, like Borat (2006), is based on an alter-ego of Baron Cohen's, that of Brüno (no last name given), a flamboyant, gay Austrian fashion reporter and interviewer. And especially like Borat and Ali G, the comedy of Brüno not only comes from the title character's persona, but from Baron Cohen's flawless ability to interview and then humiliate unsuspecting citizens and officials (most of which are unaware of the charade). It is a dangerous and painful comedic exercise.

Unfortunately, Brüno doesn't totally live up to expectations. The movie is painfully entertaining, but suffers from a weak plot. It is technically similar to Borat, but seems to focus more on the extremities of the character. One of the weakest parts of the story is Brüno himself, whose short-comings don't seem plausible enough. The character of Borat was given plausibility in that he was from a country with cultures alternative to the United States. Brüno, however, is just a mass of idiocy, blind egotism, and spoiled judgment. Most of the humor is extreme homophobia, enough to confirm one's own sexual orientation.

In the film, Brüno loses his job as a fashion reporter in Austria after he is blacklisted for disrupting a fashion show (due to him trying to wear a disastrous suit made of velcro). With his desired fame stalling in Austria, he decides to head to Los Angeles with his assistant (who harbors a secret crush, much like Smithers on The Simpsons). Everything that follows is based on his desire to be world famous, no matter what the reason is. Through it all, he fails at: interviewing celebrities; attempting to make a sex tape with Ron Paul; trying to solve political imbalance in Israel; adopting an African baby; and attempting to go straight.

Some of the deception used in the film is a testament to Baron Cohen's abilities. But it doesn't get the same reaction from everyone. After Borat, it seems like a lot of people are more interested in which parts of the movie are staged, and which parts are the real deal. It has already been confirmed that the Ron Paul sex-tape attempt is real (and just as painful for the audience to watch). Others are easy to figure out, such as when Brüno is in Israel, and he is chased by the locals for his offensive outfit (the timing suggests that it is real, and not refined).

On a technical level, there is not much else outside of Baron Cohen's credits. Director Larry Charles (who also directed Borat), manages to make some stylistic changes in adapting to a more flamboyant subject matter. Still, that shouldn't short change Mr. Charles, whose directing and writing credits are rather impressive. But as mentioned before, a lot of the humor comes from the shock value and (harmless) attacks on the unsuspecting public. So really, this movie has a life beyond most of the people involved.

What was unnecessary? The gay sex, although meant to humorous, could have been shortened in length (for those who have seen the movie, no pun intended).

Does he succeed at anything? Yes. He manages to exploit parents who are so desperate for fame they will exploit their infant children through overly religious and politically incorrect photographs. He fills up time in his failed TV pilot with some impressive penis acrobatics (really, they are quite impressive). And he manages to give Mel Gibson a new name: "Der Führer."