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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

REVIEW - "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (2009)

As I sat through “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” I released what an incredible uphill struggle this series has been. Lets face it, it is/is going to continue to be hard to make eight good movies. (Although it should just be seven.) After series highs with “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and, my favorite entry, “The Order of the Phoenix,” one becomes to expect certain greatness from these films. Anything less is simply unacceptable. With this in mind, as “The Half-Blood Prince” struggled to remain relevant halfway through, I began to feel cheated by this latest entry in the series.

Voldemort’s power is finally seeping in to the muggle world and Harry must work with Dumbledore to find the secret to Voldemort’s power. Harry’s sixth school year invites a new potions teacher that may hold the truth behind Voldemort, but first he must battle something far more dangerous: Teenage hormones.

At first “The Half-Blood Prince” really comes out of the blocks. The first third of the film lends the audience to the idea that Hogwarts is more dangerous than ever and Voldemort’s presence is becoming more and more threatening to the world. Furthermore, Draco Malfoy has been welcomed by Death Eater ranks to fulfill a mission for Voldemort-- This plot device is evident even throughout the film’s weaker moments and is a welcomed reminder when things start to resemble One Tree Hill.

I’m rather vocal about my dislike for “The Goblet of Fire;” while its not a terrible movie it’s one that spends too much time with current trends and teenage hormonal banter. While I don’t think “The Half-Blood Prince” sinks quite that low, there’s certainly an amount of awkward tension among these characters’ love lives. On the one hand it has lent to some of the more comical moments in the Harry Potter series. A personal favorite of mine is Harry’s reaction to Ron’s over-the-top girlfriend Lavender. On a train ride she spends a great deal of time drawing a heart around her and Ron’s name on a window. Harry, fittingly, can only say so much.

On the other hand, these romantic squabbles and comedic elements begin to distract from the larger problem: Voldemort is out there and the danger level is rising. The more we dive in to Harry’s love life with Ginny, or Hermione’s feelings for Ron, the less fear I have for Hogwarts and its school of wizards. The poor pacing between romance/comedy to mystery/fear makes it hard to enjoy the films’ more serious elements, thus making me wish much of the hormonal jousting was toned down.

Surprisingly, The Half-Blood Prince’s stronger moments come back to Tom Felton’s performance as Draco. Finally, the school bully has more on his mind than antagonizing Harry’s friends. One of the film’s absolute highlights includes a brief wand battle between him and Harry. Draco’s presence has newfound meaning in this film, and therefore invites a level of pity for him. Truly, Draco seems like an unfortunate pawn.

Another strong highlight is Dumbledore’s journey to a seaside cave with Harry. The following sequence results in director David Yates’ finest work since “The Order of the Phoenix” finale. Although the cave sequence, for all its suspense, doesn’t follow through the film’s peak. In what is perhaps the most anti-climatic ending in the entire Harry Potter franchise, Yates drops the ball in delivering what should have been the movie’s most important moment. Rather, the finale is dull and utterly disappointing.

Despite these shortcomings it’s inspiring to know that these actors give their all in these films. Radcliff, Grint, and the severely talented Emma Watson, simply get better with every installment. Alan Rickman stuck out particularly well in this sequel. If I haven’t said it before, I need to document it now: Rickman is Snape. He completely embodies the character with finite precision and is never upstaged at any point. It’s simply a shame these talents are tossed in less interesting conundrums this time around.

I write this review with a somber attitude. After the incredible fifth film, I was hoping Yates would keep the Potter fire burning bright— But I had a bad feeling before this movie was released, and as much as I wanted to love it, I can only see it as one of the series’ weaker entries. According to Yates, the outcome of the seventh book severely impacted the script for the sixth film. If that’s true, when all is said and done, I hope I can look back on “The Half-Blood Prince” with more fondness. Otherwise, I’d say it’s time to let screenwriter Steve Kloves go for good. Here’s a tip: Get Michael Goldenberg back immediately.

** out of ****

REVIEW - "Public Enemeis" (2009)

Michael Mann is one of those peculiar filmmakers who, without question, have a long list of great looking movies. On that list reside classics like “Heat” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” He also directed one of my all time favorite films, “Collateral,” spinning Tom Cruise in to one of his greatest roles to date. He’s known for balancing style and substance so well that one can’t work without the other. “Public Enemies” epitomizes Mann’s strengths in a period piece, powerhouse that is proportioned to the grandeur of its characters.

Johnny Depp plays real life folk hero, and public enemy, John Dillinger. His dangerous lifestyle of bank robbing leads agent Melvin Purvis, (Christian Bale) promoted by J. Edgar Hoover, (Billy Crudup) to hunt him down with extreme force. When changing times back Dillinger in to a corner, he makes a last ditch effort to end his crime spree and evade his enemies.

The storyline is filled to the rim Dillinger’s bad-boy, pseudo-romance, his advancements in bank robbing and Purvis’s confident visage battling the crime Dillinger associates with. It’s intriguing enough of a storyline, but, quite frankly, the film could have had no plot and I would have been perfectly fine with Depp, Bale and Crudup reciting nonsense in their spiffy pinstriped jackets. There’s something to be said about actors so good you don’t want the movie to end simply because they’re fun to watch.

Depp is expectedly comfortable in the shoes of John Dillinger. He plays the character with an arrogant swagger only matched by the chiseled smirk on his face every time something excites him. Bale is shockingly surreal in his role as Melvin Purvis. A man of few words, Bale plays the strong and silent type with a gentleman inspired confidence that sets him far apart from Batman. Sporting an accurate, but not over bloated accent, Bale has delivered one his absolute finest performances. Ah, but the real surprise comes from Billy Crudup. Having to squint to realize it was the once Russell Hammond, (“Almost Famous”) Crudup’s embodiment of J. Edgar Hoover is hands down the height of his career. If he does not, at the very least, receive a supporting actor nomination at the Oscars, it further confirms my negative outlook on the has-been Academy.

As if these fine actors weren’t enough to push the movie to its end, Dillinger’s character slings the audience in a direction of forbidden excitement. Because of the audience’s love for Dillinger, but the acknowledgment that he is cinematically glorified, it never occurred to me that Purvis was a villain. Far from it. Dillinger and Purvis are the top men of different worlds. One upholds unrestrained freedom, and the other unrestrained justice. A standout scene in the film is when Purvis and Dillinger meet in a jail cell. The silent Purvis stares down the arrogant Dillinger, but the tension isn’t in their words. Depp and Bale have tapped in to a talent so great that even their competing glares exude character acting no other performer can pull off. It is here that I realized I didn’t want either character to fail, but as with most cinematic enemies, I knew one must go down.

The dramatic extremes of watching Dillinger and Purvis leads, inevitably, to sleek, 1930s chase scenes and shoot outs. While the docudrama style of these shootouts might remove the audience from the film’s reality, reminding them subtly of bad soap operas, it at least maintains a duty of keeping the characters and sets involved beyond the simple pleasures of an action sequence. For example, the chase sequence following Purvis’s shootout with the more vile ‘public enemies’ (one of my favorite scenes) looks more like an art house film than an action piece. Mann has shot this film with the love for digital cinema, pitting audiences against visceral colors and images instead of an onslaught of catered CGI.

Although Mann’s “Public Enemies” is an unapologetic work of fiction adapted from history, its glorified characters are at least believable in their 1930s home. At the film’s climax, Dillinger sits with his incomparable smirk at the conclusion of “Manhatten Melowdrama,” staring Clark Gable. Inspired by another character’s mindset, he marches outside with a legendary glare that insinuates a certain immortality about John Dillinger. “Public Enemies” is not an absolute truth, but it is likely. As such, Michael Mann has delivered the legend, and that, regardless of truth, is what we go to the movies for.

**** out of ****

Monday, July 27, 2009

Poll - What is Your Favorite Harry Potter Flick?

I was rather surprised with the results of this one. I had money on "Prisoner of Azkaban," but instead "Order of the Phoenix" came out on top. I'm also surprised no one voted for the sixth film as it's received some praise. "Order of the Phoenix" is my favorite as well, but I've had some differing opinions on the franchise in comparison to others. So I suppose it's nice seeing the 5th movie held high out...err... nine people. Guess I shouldn't feel to victorious, eh?

Here's the results:

The Sorcerer's Stone - 0 Votes (0%)

The Chamber of Secrets - 0 Votes (0%)

The Prisoner of Azkaban - 3 Votes (33%)

The Goblet of Fire - 2 Votes (22%)

The Order of the Phoenix - Votes 4 (44%)

The Half-Blood Prince - 0 Votes (0%)