Swiss Army Man shouldn’t work as a movie, and in fact it will only work for a narrow swath of the world’s audience. There were plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere. The triumphant riding of a powerfully flatulent corpse in the film’s opening ten minutes should seal the movie’s fate. How does a movie survive such a juvenile, taste-obliterating moment, and one that is meant as an introduction to the film? Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. I fully anticipate that sizeable portions of readers are going to have an immediate and repellent response from just reading the plot synopsis, and I can’t blame them. I will do my best to try and explain why the movie worked so well even if I know this will be a fool’s errand for many, but if I can convince one more human soul to give Swiss Army Man a chance, then I’ve done the Lord’s work.
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and about to hang himself when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Unfazed, Hank is still determined to end his life, that is, until he can no longer ignore the farting of the body. That’s when he gets an idea and uses the power of the farting corpse to ride back to the mainland. Hank drags the corpse with him finding unique benefits, like his retention of drinkable rainwater. He’s still stranded and it’s at this point that Manny, the name he gives the corpse, begins speaking and inquiring about the world and what it means to be human.
Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. For the first act, the movie is an unconventional survival drama with Hank finding peculiar yet helpful uses with his savior, the dead corpse. It’s a guy lugging around a dead body at the end of the day. I was wondering if this was really a story that was more suited as a short and didn’t have the substance to merit a feature-length runtime, and that’s when the magic realism steps up and when Manny comes into focus. This is easily one of the most oddball buddy comedies ever. Manny is an innocent, a proverbial babe in the woods, and doesn’t know much about himself and the world, and Hank becomes his teacher. Through this process he’s forced to examine his own life from an altogether different perspective and actually starts to vocalize and come to grips with his own life’s shortcomings, insecurities, and frustrations. It’s through Manny that Hank is able to open up and examine what it means to be human. Their interaction becomes a truly rewarding and emotionally honest buddy film where one of them just happens to be a talking corpse that farts a lot. Manny wants to learn about the world and to feel what it means to be alive, and it’s this new path that emerges that gives the film a new life.
You would expect something this strange to be drenched in irony or pushing the audience to laugh at the characters, but you would be completely wrong. Swiss Army Man is one of the most earnest movies you will ever see. It is completely genuine, heartfelt, sincere in every crazy detail, and it’s what gives the movie its emotional resonance. It treats the relationship between Hank and Manny with credibility. It’s a movie about celebrating and claiming ones weirdness, told from a movie that is proudly offbeat. Hank feels left out by normal social interactions. He’s the typically withdrawn and awkward Dano character we’ve come to expect from his catalogue of films; however, rarely has he seemed this artfully articulated. He’s a man who has some deep-seeded neuroses and fears, including farting aloud in public, and he’s using his ongoing experiences with Manny to exorcise some of these past failings, to become the determined, self-actualized man he wants to be. There’s a touching part where Hank talks about the poor relationship with his father; the two have signed up for one another to get birthday e-cards via email. That’s the extent of their connection at this point, and yet Hank remarks that even if he were to die his father would still get a birthday card from him in perpetuity. It’s a small little thing but it hits and makes one think about the impact and legacy we’ll have after we’re gone for good. Are we more than just an occasional birthday card? The fact that the movie utilizes a climax that incorporates farting in public as an emotional catharsis is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that this moment is completely earned and gratifying.
Another aspect of Swiss Army Man that kept me specifically amused is the clever use of ambiguity. As the fantastical plays out with even-keeled realism, it’s easy and expected to believe that much of what we are witnessing is all in the mind of Hank. He’s projecting his needs and hopes onto this analogue for a friend that also represents himself. That’s why Hank uses Manny to relive personal experiences and to try and get them right. Then the third act comes along and causes you to question even more, putting the behavior of Hank into a muddier realm that makes you wonder if he’s this innocent wounded heart we had come to know previously. Then there’s Hank’s fixation over the pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he gravitated to on his bus rides. He looks to her as a goal, something he can return to once finally rescued and returned home. As he plays out his brief experiences with her, dressed as her, with Manny in the position of Hank, a faux courtship ensues. Hank, as her, and Manny, as stand-in for Hank, and it’s weird and wonderful and not afraid to accept the homoerotic qualities of its implications. This is a love story ultimately but a unique kind of love, and it’s up to the audience to determine what that means exactly. Is it romantic, bro-mantic, or simply a dude coming to terms with his own life in a very unusual therapeutic manner? The writer/directors The Daniels (Dan Kwan, Dan Scheinert) don’t outright tell you how to think or feel throughout any of this movie, which is a blessing. They present a complicated world with complicated and broken people doing their best to try and make their own sense, and they invite the audience along on this beguiling journey and just ask that they be patient and open-minded and then come to their own conclusions.
The music is a wonderful element that is also another facet of the characters, layering in even more whimsy and character depth. The music is often accompanied by Radcliffe and Dano, their mutterings and ramblings becoming syncopated and layered into a soothing collage of sound. They’re providing their own soundtrack to the movie of their life. Early on Hank describes the music from Jurassic Park as the proper accompaniment for life’s big moments, with a little nestling of nostalgia as well. It’s especially enjoyable to listen to either of the guys break out into their rendition of the majestic Jurassic Park theme. It’s silly and sweet but it also gets at the psychological element of Hank being outside himself, seeing his life as a movie and he as its lead. He also hums what he remembers of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which reappears throughout with comically incorrect and changing lyrics. The music is another reflection of the characters and it imbues the scenes with an extra sense of whimsy that helps to maintain its magic realism tone.
Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the… everything) and Dano (Love and Mercy) are terrific together and Radcliffe gives a tour de force physical performance. The way he’s able to contort his body, malign his posture, make use of stilted facial expressions is amazing. This goes leagues beyond the simple slapstick of Weekend at Bernie’s. The way he’s able to convey a character and a performance through this crazy decaying prism. Manny wants to help people, is eager to learn, and it makes his character so endearing, and then you remember he’s a corpse who might just be a figment of Hank’s diseased imagination. Radcliffe completely lets go of vanity and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Dano is in more familiar territory but shines again, serving as a dry comic foil for Radcliffe. The two of them form a highly entertaining and winning buddy team.
Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
The first Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise that took a simple concept (magician heist) and injected enough sly fun, style, and humor and made a memorable action thriller. As success demands, a sequel was commanded, but I had hopes considering the blueprint of its success could be repeated because those core elements were strong. We all love heist movies, we all love to be fooled, we all love to watch a smart people befuddle those in power, and the reveals made it even more enjoyable. I wasn’t expecting Now You See Me 2 to drop much of what made the first film appealing and shamble through its set pieces with a disinterested sense of sequel duty. The magic is gone.
The Four Horsemen magic act (Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan) has made quite a few enemies. They’re a group that attacks the fraud, exploitation, and greed of those rich and powerful who feel untouchable. This merry band of Robin Hoods is transported against their will to Macau, China by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Walter lost a lot of money from the Horsemen’s antics in the first film and demands they steal a super microchip that will allow him to erase his identity and stay private permanently. Meanwhile, the Horsemen’s handler, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is blackmailed by famous and currently incarcerated Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Bradley has a score to settle with the Horsemen and uses Rhodes to escape from prison. All forces are headed to Macau and much more will be learned of the Horsemen’s behind-the-scene organization, The Eye.
It feels like the filmmakers aren’t even trying to keep one foot in reality this time. It’s not like the first Now You See Me was a deeply grounded movie but it took pains to at least offer varying explanations for how these illusions were accomplished. Some of the answers were clever and some were preposterous, but at least they tried to show you their work, which made the Horsemen even cleverer, in my book. Understanding the preparation for the illusions and the execution of them adds to their impressive aura. The characters in the sequel don’t even attempt to explain the far majority of their tricks, and it’s simply not as fun. The opening job is a fun refresher because we see the different characters working together but also because we can see how they’re getting away with their shenanigans. As the movie continues, those magic acts get bigger and bigger and more ludicrous and harder to explain and then the movie just stops trying to explain. At this point magic might as well be real and the Horsemen are wizards. There’s suspension of belief and then there’s simply obliterating all connections to reality. When Eisenberg can control the direction of rain itself without any explanation, it cheapens the thrill. Because if there isn’t some level of limitations, requiring the tricks to be based in reality, then the on screen efforts lose their appeal because it doesn’t matter. It’s like haphazardly just writing, “The Horsemen do some magic junk and get away.” It’s just not as satisfying when it feels like the trick is ultimately on the audience.
Another complaint I have is that the scattered script seems littered with missed opportunities. One of the bigger misses that comes to mind is Harrelson’s twin brother, an obvious Matthew McConaughey impression from his True Detective costar. The character isn’t nearly as funny as Harrelson or the producers believe. He isn’t particularly memorable or necessary to the plot at all, but that’s not even his biggest offense. In a movie about magicians playing sleight-of-hand trickery, how in the world do we not have a switcheroo with the twins? That would justify his existence for the plot. I was shocked this never happened because it seemed so obvious. Why is he a twin? What does being a brother to Harrelson have to do with anything related to the plot? The script also gets overcrowded with antagonists, introducing Radcliffe and then bringing back Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. The characters don’t so much compete with one another as they operate in separate spheres until a “twist” reveals more about their connections. Their agendas are too opaque. Radcliffe wants them to steal a super microchip so he can fully be “off the grid.” A man of his means shouldn’t have a problem with this. It’s not like he’s hiding out from the law for some kind of corporate espionage. It’s a convoluted reason to bring the Horsemen to his hiding spot in Macau. It’s just one in a long line of ideas that never feel fully developed. Even the magic set pieces don’t feel as fun. Seriously, one of the climactic magic set pieces is a human game of three-card Monty.
Director John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jem and the Holograms) has worked with action before and certainly knows his way around choreography, but he feels too hesitant this time. The action scenes are rare and the chase sequences are muted. Outside of the tricks, there isn’t a standout action scene in the whole movie. In the first film we had a pretty fun magic fight that was wild and surprising and loaded with small payoffs. In this movie we have a motorcycle chase that plays out as expected. We have a foot chase that plays out as expected. You have professional illusionists at your disposal; action set pieces should not play out as expected. The most fun sequence is fairly straightforward but easily the best developed, and that’s the Mission: Impossible-esque heist of the microchip that is outfitted onto a playing card. It’s also clearly the most visually inventive sequence as the Horsemen play a game of keep away and the camera literally at times tumbles into their clothes. I think what makes this easily the best sequence in the movie is because it’s moderately grounded, the stakes are explained, and the audience is in on the trick, enjoying all the flimflam obfuscation. It also means when there are complications to the plan the sequence generates suspense. When you don’t know what’s going on and don’t know when things are going wrong, or how they could go wrong, it’s hard to generate genuine suspense. Being involved in the action is much more fun.
The actors all seem on autopilot, falling back to the broader descriptions for their characters. Eisenberg is a smug and cocky. Harrelson is smooth and shrewd. Franco is awkward and insecure. Isla Fisher is replaced by the capable Lizzy Caplan (TV’s Masters of Sex) as the requisite Female Horsemen. She makes a good impression but part of it is that Capaln seems to be the only member allowed to be comedic. It feels like there are three straight guys to her comedy cut-up. She’s good but without variation it also starts to lose its appeal when only one character seems to be trying. Ruffalo (Spotlight) seems too often unrelated the Horsemen story as he discovers more info about his father. He’s the only character that actually has something of a storyline, though his playing of both sides and attempts to hide his role to the FBI is just another ludicrous element. I miss Melanie Laurent too.
Now You See Me 2 (how could this not be called Now You Don’t?) is a lackluster sequel that seems to have forgotten what made the first film the enjoyable caper that it was.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s got a decent ending but it’s a long, lumbering walk to get there. This handsomely mounted Hammer throwback involves Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, slowly walking through a spooky old Victorian haunted house. And he slowly peeks around a door. And he slowly holds a candle. And I slowly go to sleep. There’s a 40-minute sequence where I swear only two things are spoken. Radcliffe plays a widowed father who has to investigate a haunted house to make ends meet. The movie has a few genuinely creepy moments, mostly owing to set design, but it gets hooked on jump scares and doesn’t know how to quit. The jump scares, accompanied by what sounds like an eagle screeching as music, happen at near two-minute intervals, like some sort of alarm the movie can’t turn off. Alas, The Woman in Black is a pretty staid ghost story where once again a restless spirit is terrorizing others and somebody takes it upon themselves to help that spirit find closure. The plot is so transparently predictable that it becomes fairly frustrating when the movie takes so long to get to its pre-designated stops. The pessimistic ending is weirdly given the most positive spin imaginable. For fans of this horror sub-genre, there may be enough going on to entertain. I just keep learning that ghosts are never grateful and satisfied even when you help them. Ghosts are jerks.
Nate’s Grade: C
While not the best film in a series spanning ten years, part two of the final chapter of Harry Potter is a solid, satisfying close that’s fittingly grandiose but also sneakily emotional at points. The plot finally gets simplified once all those silly magic items are found, and what we have is a war at the Hogwarts School of Magic between good vs. evil. The action sequences are the best in the film’s series and some very dark events take place, including the deaths of many characters, some children, though too many critical deaths occur off camera. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faces off against Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) for the fate of the world, and after the protracted, wearisome setup of Part One, it’s a relief to say that the final film moves like it’s on fire. There’s very little downtime and a great pull of urgency to the flick. So what if Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), Harry’s best pals since the start, are completely forgotten and useless in the movie’s final hour. The focus is all on Harry and his messianic sacrifices. Alan Rickman shines again, showing a depth of emotions not available to Snape until the character’s final revelations. In fact, there needed to be more Rickman, but I can lay this same charge with every film. I wish the resolution, spanning forward 19 years, would have slowed down a bit and accept the paternal/maternal changing-of-the-guard as the emotional payoff billions of people have been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two is a thrilling, gratifying capper to a series that, while to me was never as magical as the Potter die-hards have claimed, was, over eight movies and almost 20 hours, an enchanting franchise that stayed consistent in quality and entertainment. Here’s to you, Potter. Now maybe I can finally stop hearing people badgering me about how the books were better.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.
Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.
For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.
Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.
With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?
I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.
Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.
Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.
Nate’s Grade: B
Not every film franchise gets to a sixth installment, although Police Academy and Friday the Thirteenth managed to. After over twelve hours of storytelling, is it even possible for non-fans to enter the Harry Potter world (only an idiot would begin a film series at number six)? I am a willful Muggle to this universe. I am content to wait for the movies, and it drives the readers nuts. “The books are so much better,” they all say. Then they tell me what was left out of the movies, and honestly it’s usually a good thing. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince echoes the increasing darkness of the later books by author J.K. Rowling, but now I can finally walk out of a Potter film and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the book must have been superior. Half-Blood Prince is a film adaptation that spends too much time in all the wrong places.
Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes, seen only for literally a split-second) is back with a vengeance, and his followers, Death Eaters, are branching out and attacking the Muggle world as well. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has asked Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) for help in recruiting a former Hogwarts professor. Horace Slughorn (Jim Boradbent) used to be an esteemed potions professor, and one of his bright students was none other than a young Voldermort (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Fienne’s real-life nephew). Dumbledore and Harry explore liquid memories that belong to the Dark Lord in hopes of learning how to defeat him. In the meantime, the kids are under attack not by Voldermort but by hormones. Harry’s friend, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are secretly in love but neither has the heart to say something. Ron uses his star Quidditch status to “snog” with the eager Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), who’s infatuated with Ron. This infuriates Hermione and she seeks comfort in a studly student herself. Harry is starting to feel his heart go pitter-patter for Ron’s sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), which requires Harry to be very delicate in negotiating the “Can I snog your little sister?” portion of male friendship. Oh yeah, and apparently Harry is also using a potions textbook that used to belong to some whiz kid known as the Half-Blood Prince.
The further I get away from Half-Blood Prince the more certain I am that it is the least involving film of the series. The plot is somewhat nebulous and unclear, and so much of the story is dominated by boring teenage romance. I understand that Hogwarts is swimming in hormones, but these kids spend the whole time making shifty doe-eyes at each other than doing anything substantial. That makes for a boring romance, and when the movie is dominated by this stuff for two hours it doesn’t make the movie too engaging. I understand that the Ron/Hermione courtship has been setup for some time, but it takes forever to move even incrementally closer to that coupledom. The Harry/Ginny material is lacking at best. She’s such an empty presence and they do so little with her character that I have no idea what would warrant Harry’s affections. There is no spark, no heat, no sexual tension, and no interest. I was actually relieved when Half-Blood Prince drops practically every storyline with twenty minutes left. Seriously, these plotlines aren’t resolved or capped or even addressed, they just don’t exist once Harry learns the word “horacrux.” And let’s talk about that subject just for a moment. Dumbledore lures Professor Slughorn back to Hogwarts so Harry can learn Voldermort’s secret of eternal life, a secret that Dumbledore already knows because he’s been taking leaves to locate and destroy Voldy’s horacruxes. I felt detached and disenchanted throughout Half-Blood Prince.
There are other plot holes and irregularities, and I wonder if writer Steve Kloves (who took the fifth movie off) is merely serving up 153 minutes of plodding prologue for the big finish. The drama is becoming more static and the supporting characters of previous installments reappear and do little but stand with hands in their pockets; they have nothing to do. The flashbacks to Voldermort as a child reveal relatively nothing new; only indicating her was a creepy kid. The two action sequences squeezed in are not from the book, meaning Kloves was trying to add some excitement to what is a rather sleepwalking storyline. The action sequences mean little; the opening attack on London’s Millennium bridge offers some nice sights but little consequence, and the destruction of the Weasely house comes across like Kloves was grasping for greater conflict. Too much of his film is the young love foibles with the occasional sideways glance at Draco (Tom Felton) brooding in the shadows. The ending, with its notable death, still strikes an emotional cord but it also comes across as rushed and without depth and resolve.
What is the significance of the Half-Blood Prince in this adaptation? The mysterious figure was good in potions class and his old textbook helps Harry in class. That is it! The late reveal of the identity of the Half-Blood Prince is so incidental and off-the-cuff, that the actor practically has to say, “Hey, remember that whole Prince thing like an hour ago? That’s me. Yep. So see ya.” It’s such an indifferent plotline handled with such indifference. I had to ask my Potter-versed wife why Rowling would even bother naming the book after such a minor, irrelevant plot footnote. Kloves’ adaptation feels lost and mostly like filler.
So why does a slower, less coherent, less interesting Harry Potter rank better than the first two films? Because director David Yates takes an artistic step forward and this addition has style to spare. Returning to the Potter director’s chair, Yates has a stronger feel for the world and creates striking film compositions with the added help of noir cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Across the Universe) and the foreboding production design by Stuart Craig. The sets have a grand Gothic appeal and help compensate in tone for what is lacking in the screenplay. The opening bridge attack allows for soaring flights through London and then into the magic world, and it’s a great opening visual rush. The memory flashbacks have splendid visual artistry to them as we watch inky brush strokes coalesce into solidified images. It’s a fantastic special effect and it is welcomed every time. This isn’t one of the more special effects heavy installments but the effects are as good as ever especially when seen through Delbonnel’s lens.
It’s interesting to have watched the three main actors grow up in their roles, which also gives them the ability to revert to autopilot when the movie lags. In the Half-Blood Prince, the trio burrows back into previous acting episodes. Radcliffe gets talked to a lot so much of his acting in this jaunt seems to involve intense bouts of nodding. He does have one sequence of exaggerated comedy when he swallows a luck potion, and the actor feels delightfully unrestrained. Grint gets the most screen time he’s had in ages and continues to dial up the daffy humor. As I stated with my review of Order of the Phoenix, I think Watson began as the best actor of the trio and is now on a fast-paced downward slide. Her character gets to experience jealousy and heartache, and Watson shows some ability to convey mixed emotion. The most interesting actor of all the kids is Felton, who I found to be surprisingly empathetic. He’s tortured over his fate, a mission given to him by the Dark Lord. He’s torn apart by moral indecision and a sense of duty. That’s way more interesting than watching Ron and Hermione try to make each other jealous. Why didn’t Kloves devote more time to the anguish of Draco? That’s where the drama is. There just isn’t much room for character growth and acting in the rest of Half-Blood Prince. The best acting award goes to Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Hot Fuzz). He conveys the regret of Slughorn with every manner and gesture. His sad, poignant confession is oddly the emotional highlight in a movie that includes a momentous death later.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince feels like a half-hearted adaptation, with way too much time spent on tepid teen romance. This is the most visually arresting Potter film next to 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban, but it just fumbles the storytelling. The sixth film is too often boring and inconsequential. Too much of the film feels like it was purely made for the die-hard Potterheads, and if any Muggles have questions of clarity they are required to seek out a friend to ask. This is just sloppy writing. It feels like everyone is just busying themselves before the sprint to the big finale. We’re just about at the end of the long winding road that is Harry Potter, though I’m sure the fact that the producers are splitting the final book into two movies likely will not mean that the individual movies can finally have a two-hour running time. Half-Blood Prince would have greatly benefited by being shorter, more precise, and more significant; the 16-year-old romantic squabbles seem so slight in the backdrop of Voldermort and his army on the rise. I’ll give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but this is not a Potter venture I’ll likely return to again. It just doesn’t measure up when it comes to movie magic.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The most interesting aspect for me about the ongoing Harry Potter big screen adaptations are how each new director handles the material. Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling with his autumnal and slavishly loyal films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Then Alfonso Curaon made the series feel magically its own for the first time with Prisoner of Azkaban. Mike Newell made The Goblet of Fire feel like a teen romantic comedy. Now it’s David Yates’ turn to be at the Potter helm. Yates has little to his resume beyond assorted TV movies, but his direction must have impressed the Potter brass. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix feels somewhat like setup to more important events yet to come, but with Yates and new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, this new entry feels up to the entertainment challenge of its forebears.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is entering his fifth year of education at Hogwarts School of Magic. The Ministry of Magic is trying to silence Harry’s claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has arisen anew. They’ve installed one of their own, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. But she’s not interested in teaching the students actual magic. The Ministry feels it’s best for the Hogwarts youth to just have a theoretical knowledge, so they’re distributed out of date and censored textbooks. Umbridge gathers greater power and eventually has the run of Hogwarts, forcing Harry and his friends, like longtime buds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), to practice their own protection spells in hiding. Umbridge and the Ministry are convinced Harry and Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) are trying to unseat their leadership. In actuality, they’re just trying to warn people about a war that is on the horizon.
The fifth movie is also the most grownup in tone and temperament yet. Harry is in a very different place and feeling alienated from the important people he cares about. The Ministry of Magic is turning the public against him by making everyone believe that Harry is a liar. Order of the Phoenix explores a lot of psychology and doesn’t have anywhere near the humor of previous installments, especially 2005’s heavily comedic Goblet of Fire. I think this is a step in the right direction. Harry’s mortal enemy has been resurrected, his schoolmate has been murdered, and you can’t really go back to zippy Quidditch matches and silly spells that make people hurl slugs. The Harry Potter universe has gotten darker and more serious and Order of the Phoenix reflects this. Harry warns his peers during a training session that death is a real consequence of what they’re about to face, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people.
[I]Order of the Phoenix[/I] is structured into two dominant storylines: Umbridge and the school repression, and Voldermort’s attempts to infiltrate Harry’s mind. Voldermort is handled as a murky puzzle, mostly in a succession of quick flashes and nightmares, and this results in the storyline feeling more like a fuzzy memory. I found the Umbridge character to be far more interesting and even far more menacing than He Who Must Not Be Named. The combination of political suppression of the truth, fear mongering and paranoia, torture interrogations, trampling over civil rights, and teaching students censorship in the name of safety is a fascinating correlation with our own modern society. The book may have been released in 2003, and written by an English woman, but the political repression feels alive and relevant today. While I appreciated the well-crafted peeks to the nasally-challenged Dark Lord, I found Harry raging against the system trying to keep him mum to be the real meat of Order of the Phoenix. I lost some interest once Umbridge had been vanquished.
Harry Potter advocates of all stripes and sizes constantly ask me why I have little interest in sitting down and reading the actual novels, why I’m content to wait the extra time for the movies. The answer is two-fold: 1) I’m lazy, and 2) I think the slimmed down screenplays may boil the essence of J.K. Rowling’s verbose books and present a better and more focused story. In all honesty, I don’t really care about who wins a Quidditch game, or how someone helps a magical creature that is of no consequence to the story. Rowling’s massive tomes seem so overstuffed, and I repeat that I am passing this judgment never having read one book, that I don’t mind all the superfluous subplots and characters that are trimmed and/or eliminated in the path of economic storytelling. The essential essence of the story and all the really important elements will be included, any the quibbling of what gets tossed aside is often enough to confirm for me that I don’t need to read the books to see what I’m missing. Then again, this entire paragraph may do nothing but prove that I am willfully ignorant or just plain wrong. Oh well. Two more movies to go and two more books not to open.
Yates brings in the shortest Harry Potter movie to date at 2 hours and 18 minutes long, but the hastened pace sometimes causes the film to stumble or lack clarity. There’s a death late in the film (while I’m sure the entire world knows the person’s identity I will refrain from spoiling) and I had no idea what had just taken place. The death is abrupt, and the person just sort of leans back and disappears into some gate that is never given context. The whole scene is meant to be defining drama but if I hadn’t known ahead of time what was supposed to happen then I would have been scratching my Muggle head. The prophecy that the bad guys want so badly seems rather unimportant, so the ending scuffle over this little glowing ball seems like much ado about nothing. Most of the new characters, like Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, don’t feel well incorporated into the overall story. But the worst part of the hasty pace is the fact that when we finally get an all-out wizard battle between good and evil that it ends far too quickly. The Order and Voldermort’s Death Eaters are going at it with colorful attacks jettisoned around the room, but this exciting bite of action turns out to be little more than a morsel. After the wizard-on-wizard combat, Order of the Phoenix goes back to a pretty predictable finish with little in payoff. And was Hagrid’s giant goofy brother really necessary to include?
The adults have always been impeccably cast in the Potter flicks, and real star of the fifth film is Staunton (Vera Drake). Umbridge is a juicy role and Staunton brilliantly plays this fascist little school marm in Pepto pink. She has this exquisite stuttering giggle, and her ever-smiling, cherubic face quivers like there are strings attached. Staunton makes even the most innocent “excuse me” sound like it’s dripping in poison. She’s so peppy and seemingly wholesome but in the same moment is There’s one scene between Umbridge and Professor Snape (the irreplaceably awesome Alan Rickman) where he can’t stand her presence and adds an extra dose of snarl in his annoyed replies; this woman has found a way to make Alan Rickman even more awesome. Order of the Phoenix is at its best when Staunton is stalking the corridors and enforcing her brand of control. I’ll miss her dearly.
I think I need to reverse my stance on the child actors of this profitable series. With the first movies, it seemed like Watson was the real star as the studious and nitpicky Hermoine. It also appeared that Grint would never escape the trappings of squealing cowardly relief. Radcliffe seemed to suit the material but felt overly wooden and I predicted he would never be anything but a blah actor. I now must rescind my earlier predictions. Watson has become more grating as the films progress, She outshined her fellow actors when they were 11, but now that she’s a teenager and working the same limited, yet extremely huffy, acting range, turning her character into more of an annoyance than an ally. Radcliffe, on the other hand, is nicely growing into his role and expressing deeper emotions and anxiety as the weight of his Harry’s name and destiny weighs on him. I think Radcliffe will have a career outside the boy wizard; he was strikingly funny on an episode of HBO’s Extras that sent up his youthful image. I don’t think we’ll ever hear much from Grint and Watson again once the end credits roll on movie seven.
After five movies, I think we pretty much know what we’re going to get with the Harry Potter series. The stories are getting more mature and serious, and this means that the films need more attention to adaptation and weeding out the nonessential elements. I think the fans that are still grumbling about the books being butchered have missed the point (they’re also still fuming over the “new” Dumbledore, even though Gambon has been in 3 movies now). Order of the Phoenix was the longest book but has been turned into the shortest movie, and it still resonates as an exciting and emotionally engrossing fantasy now taking definite and irrevocable steps toward something dark and meaningful. Yates is scheduled to direct the next Potter chapter,The Half-Blood Prince, and even though I won’t have a new director’s style to analyze, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Just don’t tell me to read the books.
Nate’s Grade: B