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?

4 Stars TV

Cool Britannia: David Yates’ BBC Miniseries State of Play

The 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play is nothing less than six straight hours of intelligent drama, liberally spiced with suspense, action, and tasty plot twists. The entire epic tale is delivered by a veritable plethora of British Isles telly & film who’s who: writer Paul Abbot, director David Yates, and actors David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. Abbot is apparently a superstar television writer in the UK, and Yates directed the last two Harry Potter films (as well as reuniting Nighy and Macdonald in 2005 for The Girl in the Cafe).

State of Play is an especially good tonic after happening to recently watch the dour The International, which falls more or less into the same genre category. The key differential is a heathy dash of comic relief that never crosses over into farce, mostly supplied by the sublimely quirky Bill Nighy. But more importantly, the intricate tale of high-level political conspiracy feels pertinent.

Bill Nighy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald in State of Play
The Herald newsroom follows the money in State of Play

The International, although based on an actual banking scandal (a topic that could not be more timely), sabotaged its plausibility by limiting the protagonists to two lone wolfs that take on a crooked multinational financial conglomerate on their lonesome. Here, numerous fleshed-out cops and reporters alternately clash and collaborate as they chase down a gargantuan story.

State of Play is both a classic newspaper story (like All the President’s Men) and a police procedural (like The French Connection). It’s worth noting that each of these genres are about the piecing together of stories, and the suspense comes from the audience follows along with them as the discover the pieces of the narrative. Granted, the luxurious six-hour running time was a luxury The International could not enjoy.

David Morrissey & John Simm in State of Play
The Next Doctor faces off against The Master for the first time

The details of the plot were undoubtedly timely in 2003 and continue to be now, proven by its American feature film remake in 2009. After suffering through 8 years of a Bush/Cheney administration, Americans can intimately relate to oil companies meddling in governmental operations. Although State of Play is fictional, the affair between a Member of Parliament and a staff member that winds up dead inescapably calls to mind US Representative Gary Condit’s affair intern Chandra Levy, found murdered in 2001. A subplot involving an MP’s compromised expense account now looks even more timely than Abbot could have predicted in 2003, considering the atrocious widespread abuse that currently threatens to remove Gordon Brown and possibly even the Labour Party from power.

Apart from the sometimes overenthusiastic editing (making the series sometimes feel a bit like the satire Hot Fuzz), the only misstep is Nicholas Hooper’s percussive, bombastic score, including an incongruous didgeridoo-infused theme suddenly introduced in part six. But one of the series’ greatest pleasures is to hear Kelly Macdonald (a crush ever since her unforgettable performance as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl in Trainspotting) pronounce “murder” with all the wonderful extra diphthongs her Scottish accent provides.

Must read: BBC’s State of Play Left Me in a State of Awe on Pop Culture Nerd

3 Stars Movies TV

Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy bond over extreme poverty in The Girl in the Café

Richard Curtis and David Yates’ The Girl in the Café, a BBC movie aired in the US on HBO, was incredibly cute, and my heartstrings were indeed pulled, but I couldn’t shake the sense the love story was mere dressing for the real purpose of the film: explicating the issue of extreme poverty to help warm the public up for Live 8. Of course, I feel heartless for criticizing this aspect of it.

Plus, the age difference between Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald was so vast that — forget about their characters’ conflict over whether to battle or defer to stubborn politicians — it’s an issue unto itself. But if possible to overlook that, it’s a perfectly charming and lovely movie.

Reykjavik should hereby pass an ordinance decreeing its name shall heretoforth be spoken only in Macdonald’s Scottish accent.

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