July 16, 2009

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (07/16/09)

Lettergrade: C

The Harry Potter books get better the further into the series you get, but I realized while watching this new one, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, that the films have been doing the opposite for me. I've had that nagging feeling since seeing the fourth movie, Goblet Of Fire, directed by Mike Newell, which distilled its very long (but very good) antecedent novel into a 2.5 hour movie and lost a lot of the soul in the process. I complained about him at the time, but now that we're here, I'd take Newell back in a heartbeat.

Part six was made by David Yates, who also directed part five. Both movies have the same problems, which are almost too numerous to wrap my head around. I'm one to who believes that a movie need not recreate the plot of book precisely as long as the spirit and sentiment are both well honored. My problem isn't with what was changed or omitted: It's more that what is there often fails to have a effective dramatic impact and tends to feel flat and perfunctory, which is to say that several story lines from the book are hinted at, but not given much follow-through. Far too many scenes are messy and without a clear focus.

I have a feeling that Yates is a very emotionally reserved person, and one of the big crimes of his two Potter films is that he's taken books that brim with imagination and sophisticated, interesting characters, and has made them into films that are kinda one-note and dull. Even though the stories have been getting darker, we're still talking about teenage wizards here, and the books have managed to have a great deal of fun while steadily growing more serious. Why is there so little joy in Yates' Potter movies?

The screenplay discards a lot of little, easy-to-film plot devices that might have made everything stick together and flow better. One example is minor, but the principle is very important: Early in the book, Dumbledore tells Harry that he will be taking private lessons with him this year, but does not explain what the nature of those lessons will be. It is exciting because Harry walks around for a bit, wondering with his friends if he'll be learning special defensive magic spells, etc, until the first lesson arrives and he is surprised to find that Dumbledore means to educate him about the history of Tom Riddle, the boy who would grow up to be the villainous Voledmort. Now, in the movie Dumbledore never tells Harry that private lessons are coming: He just calls him to his office one night, and they begin. What's missing is the fantastic lead-up to that first lesson, which both provides the pleasure of anticipating what's going to happen and then makes the moment seem more important when it arrives. This is one of the great "question / answer" devices of dramatic storytelling that J.K. Rowling is great at it: Something mysterious is going on beyond that door in the room that we cannot get to? What in the world is happening in there? Well, we aren't told for a while, so it creates a mini mystery to chew on for a bit.

Draco Malfoy, Harry's arch nemesis at Hogwart's, is up to no good with a secret mission in this story. The book has glimpses of him sneaking around and doing secretive things, but why do that when the movie can just show you everything right away and then treat you to a seemingly endless series of scenes of him doing it? Time and time again, dramatic mysteries like this are omitted from the film, including the biggest one of all -- the one that is practically screamed out by the title: "Who is the Half-Blood Prince?" Oh, that mystery is kept alive here and there, I guess, but it doesn't drive the film the way it drives the book, and when it is revealed toward the end, it is almost out of obligation and free of any dramatic heft. Sort of like, "Oh yeah, and here's what the title was supposed to mean."

The more I think about it, that's the thing that really chaps my ass about the two Yates films: All this masterful plotting was right there in the book, and it would have taken very litlte screentime to do it! In some cases, less! They had already built the sets and bought the actors there and everything -- All that was missing was a good understanding of the text and the will to put it on screen. I mean, the flippin' dialogue was already there too! Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves merely had to copy it over to the script and have the actors say it! In particular, I was very disappointed that the scenes where Harry and Dumbledore analyze what they've seen in the Tom Riddle flashbacks were omitted. One of the great pleasures of this particular book is that it is the first time Harry gets to spend a good deal of up-close and personal time with Dumbledore. The text is very rich: Dumbledore is an intelligent and seemingly warm man from a distance, but Harry finds him to be aloof and difficult to access as he gets to know him better. On another level, Dumbledore knows that Harry has a difficult mission ahead of him, and that he himself might not be around to see him through. Their long conversations are supposed to be about preparing Harry for the future, whether he knows it or not. At the end of the story, Harry is supposed to be much more in the adult world than he was at the beginning, but Yates omits most of these scenes and is not able to make us feel that otherwise. What a waste of some great source material and an enormous budget.

Moving on to technical comments, I thought the cinematography (by Amélie's Bruno Delbonnel) was gorgeous until we neared the climax, and then I started to feel it was way over the top. Things were way too filtered and processed looking... This is a fantasy movie that is predicated on a magical world existing between the cracks and in the hidden spaces of the one we live in. Why shoot it in a way that removes us from reality as much as possible?

Nicholas Hooper wrote the bland musical score for the previous movie, and his his work is even more conspicuously inadequate this time out. Even I, a non-musician, can spot number of places where memorable themes and strong music would have helped the picture immeasurably, and might have even saved it. Hooper had done a couple TV movies and nature documentaries before getting the job on Phoenix. To trust an important job to someone with so few qualifications and only vaguely relevant experience is a real shame. Even moreso when you consider that this is a series which contains excellent scores by John Williams and Patrick Doyle. Warner Bros. has apparently told Yates that they will not allow Hooper to return for further installments, which is great news indeed.

The editing by Mark Day is likewise a fucking travesty. We never get a good look at any of the rooms these characters are in, and important lines are played completely off camera or in wide shots where they fail to land with the audience in any meaningful way. Also, there are many scenes, like Slughorn's first class, where we look at his back pretty much the whole time he's talking! If you look at the scene, there's evidence that the proper coverage was there, but for some reason Day assembled everything in the least dynamic, least engaging way possible. Consistently, there's a ton of space between lines as well, which could have easily been tightened up to play better. Better yet, that valuable real estate could have been used to - oh, I don't know - insert more of the dialogue from the book.

I'm sad that they're sticking with this director for the last book (which will be split into two movies), because he's cheap and reportedly easy to work with. I guess it's the way of the world, but the series was much more interesting when big-name directors were allowed to put their own spin on the material and really interpret the books. Say what you will about Chris Columbus (parts 1 and 2), Alfonso Cuarón (part 3) and Newell, but at least they understood classical filmmaking inside and out and were able to do interesting things within those traditions, albeit to varrying degrees of success.

Part of their success came from hiring a good support team: Good editors, qualified composers, etc. The amazing set design team came pre installed when Yates joined the series for part 5, and the actors have always been top notch. He has hired great DPs for his two movies, and will be working with another great, Eduardo Serra (of Unbreakable and The Girl With The Pearl Earring fame) on the two Deathly Hallows flicks. Nevertheless, he's brought in bush-league semi-pros to handle some of the other key creative roles, and for movies of this kind of scope that's just unforgivable.

My review of Order Of The Phoenix

July 4, 2009

Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (07/04/09)

Lettergrade: D

Critics, Transformers fans, and casual film-goers alike all agree that Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen is pretty bad. I don't feel like I need to bend over backward to make that argument. But trying to come up with something insightful - or even witty - to say about the movie is another story. In the first line of his essay, Roger Ebert calls the movie "a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments." How in the world can a bush league player like myself hope to compete with a comment like that?

I'll start by rehashing a number of observations I had about the first movie: Again, I could barely tell a single one of the robots apart (not counting Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and two illiterate black robots who are new to the cast this time). Megan Fox is still one of the worst actresses I've ever seen in a major motion picture, boasting, as others have noted, the appearance of the porn star and the acting talent to match. The cinematography is a little better this time, but is still marred by Michael Bay's signature preference for getting the lens as close to the subject as possible, then shaking the hell out of it as the shot happens. This, combined with the hyperactive editing, creates the feeling that you're watching the whole movie on a small boat in rough waters. What's wrong with actually getting a good look at whatever's happening on screen?

I loved the Transformers cartoon show when I was a kid, and one of the great pleasures of the first movie was that trailer voice-over maestro Peter Cullen was brought in to once again provide the voice of Optimus Prime. He's back this time, and is joined by more members of the old guard as well, most conspicuously voice god Frank Welker as Soundwave, who floats above the earth intercepting communications as a satellite.

I can't think of much else to say that hasn't already been said. The plot is ludicrous, incomprehensible, and barely worth discussing. Logic is not part of this world, nor is continuity: On many occasions, you'll see a robot doing something in one shot, and then in the next shot, that exact same robot will be doing something totally different (or at least, I think it's the same robot). If you could tolerate and enjoy the first movie, you'll probably have the same feelings about this one. The first movie probably pissed me off a little more. Either I've mellowed a little or I was going in with lowered hopes.

The comic relief is puzzling. Julie White and Kevin Dunn return as Shia LaBeouf's parents. White, a really funny actress, is again allowed to just basically do whatever the hell she wants and gnaw the scenery at will, such as during an extended sequence where she consumes pot brownies that she unknowingly purchased at a college campus bake-sale, and loses her shit for minutes on end (because she had never heard of pot during the 60s and 70s, apparently, and the brownies also contained concentrated doses of LSD). This is a movie where everything is so garish, and in-your-face, and utterly unconvincing that events like this didn't even really phase me.

One that did, though, happens with John Turturro, who returns as Agent Simmons. At one point during the film's third act in Egypt, he removes his trousers, revealing a tight thong underneath. "What's that?" one of the characters understandably wonders aloud. Off-camera -- and very quickly, almost so as not to be understood by those who are not paying close, close attention -- Turtorro seems to say, "Oh, I wear these when I want to fuck." I'm not sure how a line like that wound up in a PG-13 summer popcorn movie (or even what it is supposed to mean in the context of the scene), but suffice to say it was the most interesting one of the movie.

I'll leave you with a few links. The first is an hysterical post from Topless Robot, detailing the film's many incongruities. I also like how Rob ably points out that there's no reason for much of the plot to even happen if the All-Spark shard could easily do what it does to Optimus significantly earlier in the flick:

Topless Robot - Rob's Transformers 2 F.A.Q.s

My review of the first Transformers

And finally, a Verizon Fios commercial that came out a year or two back. I know he didn't direct it, but I still consider it the best thing that Michael Bay has ever been involved with: