The Collegian
Sunday, July 12, 2020

Featured Flick: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I recently had a conversation with a fellow movie-goer, the kind of conversation that usually results in my being accused of cinema-snobbery and not enjoying movies for their more entertaining merits. These conversations usually end with something like: "But hey, it's the summer. What were you expecting?"

Since "Jaws" coined the term "blockbuster" in 1975, the summer movie season has bestowed the public with escapist pleasures from Memorial Day weekend through the end of August. Now, I love "Jaws" and I love films such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." even more, but more than a third of the way through this summer's movie season, I was lost in what could only be described as an existential funk.

The summer movie season, a time of the year that I had always revered, had betrayed me. I instead found myself turning to Netflix with alarming frequency to revisit some of my old favorites rather than venturing to a multiplex dominated by CGI-laden remakes and movies starring the venerable Matthew McConaughey.

Somehow the old mantra, "They don't make 'em like they used to," didn't seem quite adequate. But my friend assured me that I was wrong. And, for the most part, he was right. Let's not forget that last summer we all reveled in the magisterial bleakness of "The Dark Knight." And thankfully this summer, my concerns were quelled after J.J. Abrams skillfully reimagined the Star Trek series. So all was well ...

Then came "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," director Michael Bay's second attempt at turning Shia LaBeouf (yes, you may remember him as the star of Disney Channel's "Even Stevens") into a viable action star. For those of you who have never heard of Michael Bay, he has been accused among other things of misogyny and the downfall of coherent filmmaking.

This is all very nice, but at the end of the day, Michael Bay couldn't direct traffic, let alone Megan Fox's undulating hips (the film's opening scene features the voluptuous Fox, prostrate across a motorcycle, the camera fixated on her rear). Some of the film's other highlights include a robot humping scene I can only guess Bay thought was funny, and a mind-numbing climax that had me wondering whether I had indeed just seen the infamous film the government subjected Alex to at the end of "A Clockwork Orange."

Yes, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a terrible film and probably does represent the worst of the current blockbuster paradigm, but seriously, how could a movie so clearly aimed at the masturbatory delights of the 16-year-old male pose a threat to the livelihood of the summer movie? I couldn't have been more wrong as my confidence was shattered upon exiting the theatre.

To my utter shock, I heard cries of unrestrained joy from those 16-year-olds, and more frighteningly, their 40-year-old parents. I immediately ran to my car (surely this was the first sign of the apocalypse I had read about in Sunday School) and drove home in silence.

I then proceeded to watch Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of The Lost Ark," the preferred antidote to Michael Bay. At some point while watching Indy vanquish the Nazis for the umpteenth time, my hands went all clammy as I suddenly realized the executive brain power behind "Transformers" ... Steven Spielberg. My cherished boyhood idol was indeed the executive producer of Michael Bay's latest film. I have never endured such a sleepless night.

So it was with a heavy heart that I ventured to my local theater to see the sixth installment of the wildly successful, if somewhat unspectacular, "Harry Potter" franchise. And yes, franchise is an appropriate word (any film series that has spawned the creation of its own theme park within Universal Studios surely must be seen as such).

Admittedly, I was and still am an ardent admirer of Rowling's books and have enjoyed the majority of the film adaptations since Alfonso Cuaron ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") took over directing duties from the woefully slavish Chris Columbus. Since 2003's "Azkaban," I have eagerly anticipated the release of the next Potter installment and of the yearly procession of British character acting that each film has come to represent. Any film that combines the admirable talents of Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman and Jason Isaacs could only be described as spectacular, right? However, I was somewhat underwhelmed by David Yates' first trip to Hogwarts with 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," an overwrought adaptation of an impossibly un-adaptable novel, and had some reservations after seeing the latest chapter. But reservations aside, I lined up two hours before the start of the show ...

This was one of those midnight showings, a packed theater filled with sweaty 15- somethings amped up on Sour Patch Kids. The whole scene could only be described as Hogwarts on parade. Navigating my way through a slew of Albus Dumbledores, I found a seat next to a Luna Lovegood lookalike toward the center of the theater.

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Clearly out of my element, I sunk into the cushioned chair and listened. Most of my neighbors' conversations ranged from the ethical merits of Polyjuice potion to whether or not they felt the actress chosen to play Hermione was perhaps ... gasp ... too pretty.

After about an hour of this, the film opened to rapturous applause as the familiar John Williams theme played during the opening credits. What ensued during the next 153 minutes was one of the more thrilling and wholly unexpected encounters I have ever had with a summer blockbuster, a film that restored my faith in summer moviemaking.

Sure, it's a kid's movie, and as far as the Potter movies go, this was the first to receive a PG rating in some time, but there was something unmistakably sinister about this film. Visually, the movie is a distant relative of Chris Columbus' first two installments, as the color palate has been muted to a dull blueish-green, reflecting the "seriousness" of the story (wait, this is a Harry Potter film, right?).

As for the story, the film finds our bespectacled protagonist Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) gearing up to fight Voldemort all the while trying to deal with love in the wizarding world. Aided by the relentlessly faithful duo of Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), our three precocious wizards attempt to navigate their way through a year of love potions, Quidditch matches and wait ... wizarding terrorism?

This movie almost manages the impossible feat of mixing light with dark and bending genre (at times the film is funny, nostalgia-inducing, epic and at its conclusion, even moving). I say almost because this is by no means a perfect movie. That being said, I haven't seen light with dark packaged this effectively since "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1980 (you may also remember this as the Star Wars installment where George Lucas was told to go sit in a corner while someone else directed). And although the first portion of the film is an amusing, diverting and if nothing else, well-acted spectacle, the finale is something else.

The last third of the film contains some of the most thrilling moviemaking I have have seen in a long time (in fact, I even found myself acknowledging this audibly, much to the dismay of the Potterites sitting next to me). In it we get a tone and style that is so in-line with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I wonder whether Peter Jackson may have been clandestinely involved. The standout moment is a truly haunting sequence in a cave as Harry and Dumbledore track down clues to finding their elusive nemesis. And for those of you who haven't read the books, the final, tragic sequence is brilliantly realized. I will say no more ...

That night I walked out of the theater filled with a sense of wonder despite the expected complaints of the messianic purists around me. No amount of fan-boy protestation could hamper my excitement. Unlike my experience after "Transformers," I went home reinvigorated rather than bludgeoned over the head; my faith had been temporarily restored. In a movie season that is typified by films that play like video games, it is genuinely refreshing when you find a film that is populated by real people. And in all places, I found this in a "Harry Potter" movie.

Contact Collegian reporter Greg Montine at greg.montine@richmond.edu

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