Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dark Magic

Has any franchise in movie history been more plagued with inconsistency than the Harry Potter films? Not inconsistency in the narrative or even thematic sense, but an inconsistency of vision. In spite of the fact that the series represents the apex of modern-day production values, you can't take the series as a whole; rather, it must be looked at in terms of the individual parts. Chris Columbus cheapened Spielberg's aesthetic in the first two pictures, misrepresenting Rowling's allegory about adolescence as a cheap Cinderella knock-off. The franchise reached poetic heights for the first time with Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban, but the moments of wonder in that film felt isolated from the whole. Cuaron didn't merge his aesthetic sense with the content of his story as effectively as he could have, but it was a noble effort nonetheless. Then, Mike Newell plunged into the depths with The Goblet of Fire--- an incomprehensible, oppressively glum train-wreck of a movie. Leading into the previous film, The Order of the Phoenix, the franchise had what can only be called a rocky history (a symptom of its status as a cash-in).

But with The Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates found the perfect frequency to pitch the series at. He managed to do justice to the stories' darker subtext, while at the same time not allowing the more sullen elements to bog down the ultimate point of the series: magic. Yates also has an extremely refined compositional sense; his frames have a staggering amount of depth to them, and he uses the width of his widescreen frame effectively. Unlike Chris Columbus or Mike Newell, Yates actually knows how to stage things for the camera and, unlike Cuaron, he knows how to use his aesthetic sense in service of his story and characters, instead of in addition to them. So, going into The Half-Blood Prince, I had high hopes that Yates would continue simultaneously doing justice to Rowling's original text, while at the same time bringing some much needed originality and consistency to the series.

Unfortunately, the inherent weaknesses of the source material drags down the otherwise exemplary Half-Blood Prince; the story doesn't unfold so much as wobble, occasionally spasmodically, to the finish line. There are stretches of this two and a half hour picture that are excruciatingly, laboriously dull--- and that the movie treats the teeny-bopping melodrama of Potter & Co. in an almost mythic manner only adds to the frustration. One really should master the art of basic story-telling mechanics before treading into such deep subtextual waters, but Half-Blood Prince presents itself in such a grandiose manner that the actual story fails to grab as much as the presentation of it does. The series has always worked best when it tells a story simply and effectively, and drops the highfalutin pretensions.

Still, credit must be given to the film makers for making an even reasonably comprehensible film out of Rowling's story, which is flat-out stupid. The twists and turns, the melodramatic arks, the hammy romance subplots, and the character-developmental broad strokes are all just contrived in this installment. The flimsiness of the source material can be forgiven, though, because the film makers behind the Harry Potter franchise actually care about what they're putting up on the screen--- rare for any film, let alone one aimed at children (which would explain why Mike Newell, who couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, wasn't asked back). Save for a few moments of incomprehensibility (a disorienting and clumsy chase through a wheat field being the worst offender), there is a visual elegance to the Potter pictures, especially the last two, that is virtually unseen in modern day blockbusters.

While David Yates may not have brought the series into its own with this latest installment, he's certainly the man who has most effectively streamlined the movies to reflect a personal vision, while at the same time remaining pure to the source material. He's certainly established an effective template for the final movie(s), which admittedly is part of the problem with Half-Blood Prince--- as with the first movie in the series, we simply feel like we're viewing the foundation for a more complete, satisfying affair. So much of Half-Blood Prince is hackneyed exposition, it's unfortunate the movie couldn't be more stripped down to function as its own entity. The groundwork is certainly there for the Potter-to-end-all-Potters, and I look forward to seeing how Yates brings this always enjoyable, if frustratingly inconsistent series of films to a close. The ball is, as they say, in his court.


Adam Zanzie said...


I don't know why, but I stopped going to the Harry Potter movies after 2004. When I first saw "Sorcerer's Stone" in 2001, I did enjoy what Columbus had done with it- but at that time, I was a 5th grader who thought HP was the most exciting new thing to hit cinema. Then, a month later, what comes out? The new kid on the block. "Fellowship of the Ring". Suddenly, this 5th grader is more interested in bigger, more epic things. HP looks like a little pussy next to LOTR.

Over the years, my disappointment was hardly diminished. I thought Columbus really struck out for the home team with "Chamber of Secrets". I found it incredibly boring. Two years later, I thought that Cuaron breathed a little bit of fresh air into "Prisoner of Azkaban", certainly the best-looking of the three. The film is great up until the last third act, which is basically "Femme Fatale" but without much of a climax.

Then, well, I stopped going. I didn't see "Goblet of Fire", not because of any feelings I harbor towards Mike Newell (I haven't seen any of his movies, in fact, although I hope he does something interesting with the upcoming film version of "Prince of Persia"), but because I heard from so many rapid HP fans who thought the movie was unfaithful. Not that I care what fans of the books think- I don't admire Rowling's prose that much- but "Goblet of Fire" IS considered to be the masterpiece of the series, apparently. But I dunno. Maybe I'll check the movie out someday. Same with "Order of the Phoenix". I missed that one, too.

So because I haven't kept in touch with the franchise in awhile, it probably wouldn't be good for me to see "Half-Blood Prince" just yet. Sounds like David Yates is up to something, though... I've never even heard of him. Has he done anything else interesting?

Marilyn said...

I've actually liked all the movies, but I didn't go to one of them as a movie buff. I went as a fan of the characters. Except for the film that sidelines Hermione for almost its entire length, I've liked where these people have been and are going.

Ryan Kelly said...

Zanz, I hear ya with the Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter distinction, but the only LOTR movie I'm really crazy about is the first one--- after that, I'd say the best of the Potter movies (which are, from where I'm sitting, the third and fifth ones) are as good or better than the second and third Lordof the Rings movies.

I agree, Columbus' Chamber of Secrets is a little on the dull side, but that's because it's by far the most literal adaptation of the books. Seriously. It's practically word for word. And the second book definitely has the most pedestrian plotting and the least subtext--- I don't think there's anything in the second book that focuses on anything but specifically the Potter narrative. I like all the subplots about the 'incidental' characters.

And man, Goblet of Fire is a real piece of crap! While I was writing this I stumbled upon this quote from Mike Newell about his 'reasons' for making the fourth movie, which incidentally kind of explains why the movie sucks so hard:

I was very anxious to break the franchise out of this goody-two-shoes feel. It's my view that children are violent, dirty, corrupt anarchists. Just adults-in-waiting basically.

What the hell kind of crap is that! That has to be one of the two or three more awful things I've ever heard, and someone who contempts children so much really shouldn't be allowed to make a chldren's film. Which explains why that movie is so oppressively glum and mean-spirited: because he hates children and wants them to suffer. That, and the fact that it wants to cram in so many details from the book that it never actually tells a story of its own. It just rushes from scene to scene, plot beat to plot beat, with no room to breathe.

But yeah, it seems like Yates has a trick or two up his sleeve. The Order of the Phoenix is really good, and this certainly has its moments. I'm hoping he's just putting the pieces into place for a fitting send-off. Lord knows the franchise deserves at least that much.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, I hear ya. It's a challenge seperating the movies from the source material, especially in a case like this where the novels are so beloved that it will always be the movies that in the books' shadow. I like the series as a whole, too, but it suffers from being rushed into production because of the popularity of the books. A seven-movie series like this one would have benefited from a little more forethought. It's sad thinking about the series we could have had, with a director daring enough to tackle the seven books. But, out of all the directors the series has had, Yates seems most fit for the job.

Have you seen this new one yet, Marilyn?

Marilyn said...

No, but I'd like to this weekend. I might catch a matinee tomorrow.