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3 Stars Movies

A muggle tries to make sense of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

As Pottermania began some years ago, I recall being amazed at how similar it all seemed to Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, which predates J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel by about five years. In it, boy wizard Tim Hunter, equipped with broken glasses and an owl, is prophesied to be an immensely powerful wizard. The forces of good and evil each seek to manipulate his upbringing in an effort to claim him for their own. For Gaiman fans, it was tempting to cry plagiarism. But subtract the glasses, and substitute the owl for a cute droid or two, and you could just as well be describing Luke Skywalker.

The generation that grew up with the Harry Potter books will just as surely sit rapt through the movies as they will quibble about the compromises made in their adaptation. Beware what follows is from the perspective of an older non-fan, who’s read the first book and seen the movies, but doesn’t hold them deep in the heart as the Harry Potter generation does.

Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith demonstrate to the upcoming generation of British actors how it’s done.

David Yates’ Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is very, very long, and demands that the audience has retained an awful lot of lore from the previous movies (but again, the counterargument stands: you can say the same about Star Wars and Star Trek). I found the trailer totally incomprehensible, and the movie at times befuddling. I longed for a less novelistic and more movie-like narrative.

When a MacGuffin is finally introduced late in the movie, it adds a much-needed dramatic spark to drive the story, giving Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) a clear quest. But for those of us without a Potter wiki stored in our brains, what they seek — a Horcrux — is not clearly explained, despite reams of exposition from Dumbledore, plus a recap from Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) at the end. Apparently there is more than one, two have already been found, and a third turned out to be counterfeit?

Helena Bonham-Carter in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Helena Bonham-Carter plays her baddie with relish.

It must have been quite a gamble to cast such a large troupe of child actors, trusting that they would grow into the acting profession over the course of several years. I wouldn’t say any of the child actors are bad, but they’re all unsurprisingly outclassed by the large complement of veteran British actors.

Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter both play baddies with relish, but I can’t say I recall much about who they are and what motivates them. Nor whether returning characters played by Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, and David Tennant are still good and/or evil, alive and/or dead. Didn’t Oldman appear in a fireplace in one of the previous movies? I guess he’s feeling better now. I can’t keep this stuff straight.

Alan Rickman is superb as always, every line reading a delicious mixture of humor and menace. As with Ian McShane in anything, Rickman is doing Shakespeare while everyone else is in a soap opera. His character Snape turns out to be the titular Prince, which I suppose raises two questions for the next installment: was his dangerously annotated potions textbook deliberately left to fall into Harry’s hands? And: what’s the significance of the nickname? He appears to be some kind of double-agent.

Emma Thompson in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Emma Thompson excitedly explains all the Potter lore to non-fans like myself.

Recurring villain Draco (Tom Felton) remains a wet noodle. Every movie sets him up as Harry’s nemesis at school, as well as cosmically fated for evil as Harry is for good. But he always winds up spanked and running away crying like a baby. It’s unclear to me if we’re supposed to consider him a real threat, but perhaps I’m overthinking things, and it is simply childish wish fulfillment that the school bully always get his embarrassing comeuppance.

Most of the rest of the movie is concerned with the teens’ romantic lives. I don’t happen to recall Ginny (Bonnie Wright) being a significant character in the previous movies, so the mutual infatuation between her and Harry seemed to have developed offscreen between movies.

But what has always puzzled me the most about this whole epic is Harry himself. What makes him so special? He’s not necessarily the most clever (Hermione of course), brave, or powerful. From what I recall from the backstory, his biggest claim to fame is that he survived an attack by the Dark Lord Voldemort. But the world’s most powerful wizard Dumbledore apparently trusts Harry more than anyone else. Surely there’s any number of more experienced wizards he could have brought along with him to look for the Horcrux; why did he specifically need Harry?

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3 Stars Movies

Don’t leave Earth without Garth Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was more mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Mos Def, Martin Freeman, and Sam Rockwell in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office… Martin Freeman, was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (i.e. go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!

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