Monday, July 20, 2009

Movie Miscegenation: The Half-Blood Prince

I saw The Half-Blood Prince tonight. I have two words.

Oh my.

Oh, and three more words: What a letdown.

The Half-Blood Prince lives up to its name in a most ironic fashion. It's a mixed-blooded movie, 3 parts excellence (or at least "really, really goodness") to 1 part utter mediocrity. As films go these days, that's not a bad ratio. Unfortunately, the mediocre part is at the end, where the payoff was supposed to be. Instead of leaving the theater thinking that the film was really good, I left feeling frustrated and annoyed.

Full disclosure: I'm a Harry Potter fan. I'm not a fanatical Harry Potter fan, but I've read the books several times. I'm one of those folks who has a hard time when films seriously diverge from the books on which they're based. For that reason I wasn't too high on The Order of the Phoenix, and I was especially down on The Goblet of Fire. I was prepared to be similarly disappointed with The Half-Blood Prince.

The funny thing was, I wasn't. Through the first 3/4 of the film, I thought it was great. I thought the parts the writers pared away weren't essential to the story, and the parts they inserted added just the right balance of drama, tension, and humor. I was really enjoying myself.

Unfortunately, for me, the film wasn't finished. The final quarter of the movie, from the point Slughorn gives Harry the memory to the ending credits, was bad. Just bad. Not good at all. Especially the battle at Hogwarts. It was bad primarily because it wasn't in the film.

That's right, folks: the most exciting and action-packed scene of the first 6 books was virtually omitted from the film. That scene was a present to any competent screen writer, all wrapped up and tied with a bow. It just screams "Visual climax!" to anyone who reads it. Hell, I'm no screen writer and even I knew that the moment I read it. You have wizards fighting wizards, life-and-death struggles, Hogwarts students and members of the Order of the Phoenix fighting Death Eaters -- and losing. You have parts of the building being blown up and collapsing; some people being horribly wounded; others fighting to get through a mysterious force-field-like barrier. You have all of that ... in the book. In the movie you have a few Death Eaters who waltz into Hogwarts while everyone's sleeping, break a bunch of glasses on the dining room tables, and that's it. Snape still kills Dumbledore like in the book, but that's about the only similarity. In every other way, the climax of the movie is totally inferior to the climax in the book.

And that's not counting the finding of the horcrux in the cave. It wasn't nearly as bad as the Battle For Hogwarts That Wasn't, but it still left much to be desired. And the part that was desired was subtlety. And that comes back to casting: Michael Gambone just doesn't cut it as Dumbledore, plain and simple. He's been a liability to the films since The Goblet of Fire. He's a good actor, don't get me wrong. He just can't play Dumbledore when it counts. That's where we continue to really miss Richard Harris. Harris had it all over Gambone when it came to projecting the subtle power and brilliance of Albus Dumbledore -- even more so when you consider that the stories he was working with (The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) were the simplest of the series, and therefore he had to work that much harder to invest his performance with the understated power and dynamism it exhibited. Gambone's Dumbledore is ham-fisted and melodramatic by comparison.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the character of Dumbledore in the books is his equanimity, his sang-froid. It isn't carelessness or insouciance. Quite the contrary: it's the sign of a true master -- a man who's smarter than you, cleverer than you, and more powerful than you, and who knows it. That knowledge gives him a confidence in his powers so complete that he has absolutely no need to flaunt them before anyone in any way, so complete that he refuses to let either his charges or his enemies see him sweat. That confidence, that subtle majesty (if I may indulge in a little melodrama myself), is the quality of Dumbledore that leaps out of the pages of the Harry Potter books. It's the quality that Harris imbued his Dumbledore with. It's the quality that Gambone's Dumbledore conspicuously lacks, and in this movie it was more obvious than ever.

Part of that problem, of course, was with the script. At the parts in The Half-Blood Prince where the script was bad (most noticeably at the end), it was bad. But good casting and quality acting can overcome a bad script. If you doubt that, watch Star Trek the prequel. It has plot holes a mile wide and some truly awful dialogue, but you just don't care because the casting is so amazingly spot-on and the acting (at least with the major characters) so very well done that the film is just too much damn fun. There was no such fun in the past four Harry Potter films. One of the key roles in the series has been filled by a man who's shown himself incapable of rising to the occasion. Sort of like A-Rod in the playoffs.

So that was the bad. But there was good, too. Lots of it. Take the script for the first 2 hours, for instance. Great stuff. It was witty, funny, poignant, and dramatic all at the right moments. The acting was good all around this time. Even Gambone was good, at first. He fell apart at the end of the film like Nick Anderson in the '95 Finals, but he was quite good at first. Emma Watson, such a liability in The Order of the Phoenix, was much improved here. Rupert Grint flashed charisma and a knack for comic timing. Daniel Radcliffe continues to display good acting chops, doing what Gambone couldn't -- overcoming some truly groan-inducing lines and making them passable.

The two best parts of the film, though, were Alan Rickman and Jim Broadbent. Rickman's Snape is magnificent: disdainful, understated, sneering, caustically sarcastic. Snape's dressing down of Harry after the latter accuses Draco Malfoy of hexing a student is a 20-second acting clinic. And Broadbent as Slughorn is excellent. He plays him as a total fop, something that didn't really come across as much in the book but which plays very well on the screen. His lines aren't always the greatest, but his performance is so good you almost don't notice. (Kind of the same way that Tom Brady helped make so many mediocre receivers look good. You didn't notice how average they were until they went to other teams. Likewise, you don't notice how bad some of the lines are until the final part of the film, when the wheels start to come off.)

Final verdict 2.5 stars out of 4. The first half of the film was great, but the payoff was supposed to be at the end and the end sucked. It wasn't that the end was bad in itself, only bad by comparison. Kind of like The Godfather III, which wasn't an awful movie on its own. It was an average film. But parts I and II of The Godfather were so amazingly good that part III was absolutely terrible by comparison. That's how I felt about The Half-Blood Prince, a mongrel film whose bad side just gets the better of it.

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