- What’s Good: The best “Potter” film to date. By far. Directing, cinematography and the adaptation must all be singled out for praie. Same goes for many of the performances. Slughorn, Snape, and young Tom Riddle excel.
- What’s Not: Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore does not. I’ve never responded to his flat characterization.
A good “Potter” film needs to balance four things. Humor, horror, fantasy (magic) and sexual angst. As simple as the formula and cut/paste writing style of the books may be (Rowling is no literary giant but she’s Hagrid sized next to Stephanie Meyer), “Potter” films always struggle with those tonally varied themes because their 100 pages scripts must accommodate 1000+ source material. Some get the magic part right (the dual in “Order of the Phoenix” is a high point), some the lightness and sense of fun of being a wizard (“Stone”), and some, by attempting to do everything, end up doing nothing (the god awful “Goblet of Fire”), etc. But none did any sort of justice to all four traits until now. The odd part is that, as a book, “Half Blood,” is not the most popular or the most memorable or much of anything except a long bridge that gets us to the fantastic final chapter. This film changes that. It is not only the first “Potter” film since the first one that feels new but it is also a film I have no problem calling the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Potter-verse.
“Half Blood’s” success owes everything to director David Yates, writer Steven Klovis’s return and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The film has a lot of style and just as much feeling, more so than the fan-favorite “Prisoner of Azkaban” which is considered the best as it happened to be directed by a, um, actual director. Now David Yates must also be called that for his work here defines what a “Potter” film should be. This one’s a beaut and a great leap forward from Yates’ safe-playing but competent work on “Order of the Phoenix.” His second effort “Half Blood” comes alive with equal parts intrigue and whimsy. What’s cool is that stylistically it owes as much to the “Lord of the Rings” movies as it does to past “Potter” films. Dark color pallets dominate the frame but are stabbed by serenely stark points of source light (usually emanating from a wand) and even the abundance of comedy and relationships subplots retain their sense of innocence and fun will remaining enmeshed in darkness. There’s a scene where Harry comforts Hermione (in lourve with Ron, who apparently just discovered that chicks are a lot more interesting than Harry) in some forgotten corner in Hogwarts. This may be a small moment but its captured with a lot of heart and detail–the moss on the ground, the open window, the golden hues and the birds she unceremoniously launches against the wall at the end of the scene.
While beautiful, the colors are a bit too saturated at times. When Harry and Dumbledore head into a cave to find Big V’s horcrux it’s almost black and white! I’m not complaining though because the aesthetics are a wonder.
Negotiating flaws are tricky, perhaps even futile, seeing as how I’m a fan of the books and to a (much) lesser extent the films. Unlike the last “Potter,” which I feel took a long book and focused in on what worked, this version runs longer but were it not so it would be faulted for being too short. Again, the film series can’t win. The middle chunks of this film feels like a WHOLE one (the fiery attack on Weasley’s farm house or whatever is a conceptual failure) and I kept looking at my watch, waiting for the meaty flashbacks (Voldermort’s mum and such), and Harry/Albus horcrux quest to kick in. They never fully did get into the flashbacks save a few key ones. I loved, for example, Frank Dillane who, as 16-year-old Tom Riddle/Voldermort, is more effectively creepy and mannered than Ralph Finnes (this kid’s going places). Also, the (re)introduction of horcruxs (ever the deus-ex-magica) felt like an afterthought but seeing as how “Potter” and co. have a lot more horcruxs to track down in the final installment(s) (are you ready for “Tent: The Movie”?), the next film(s) is going to suffer from too much of that so maybe it was wise to delay and tighten “Half Blood’s” denouement. Another issue (but not really) is that, even though they are indeed balanced brilliantly, the tonal shifts are as skittish as a snitch. A single scene (like the one I mentioned with Harry and Hermione) can start funny then turn really sad then end with a blast of magic.
The film’s all over the place but in a good way because I liked all the overs it goes to. Amazingly, the film assigns a great deal of priority and weight to the teen’s sexuality (SNOGGING!) and throwaway moments of random humor (I heart Luna) as much as it does the main plot thread consisting of uncovering the Death Eater’s plot to kill Dumbldore and subvert the Wizarding community as they make way for you-know-who. That Yates and co. allow for the serious stuff to coexist so well with the warm humor and sexual hook-ups/hangups is is why it ranks as the best or, if not that, than the most enjoyable. Professor Slughorn (a famewhore who holds Voldermort’s big soul sucking secret) as a character, is, I think, the lynchpin for why the plot elements hold together so well. He is not only a very funny character that interacts with the young wizards but also connects the darker elements of the past. It helps that Jim Broadbent not only handles this character with a squinty-eyed charm and a priceless awkwardness that no other “Potter” side character has ever approached, but he actually makes Slughorn more vivid than he ever was on the page.
Michael Gambon does the opposite. Yeah, I must once again (and for the last time thank the gods) bitch about Gambon’s Dumblebore. While this may be the character’s best non-Richard Harris entry into the films (I liked his early scenes with Potter and the random moment where he picked out a Knitting magazine from Slughorn’s squatting quarters) but he’s still far too cold and apathetic to ever be considered a great film character. I never felt he gets or, now, got the character. I understand the secret burden placed upon Dum-Dum must be secret (der) but even clandestine actions and frustratingly veiled half-truths/instructions he imparts to young Harry (and Snape with his parting double-edged “please” line) come across as exasperation more than emotional exigency. Alan Rickman’s Snape, on the other hand, nails the same dualisms with just a glance and I can’t wait to see what he does with “Deathly Hallows.” Upon hearing Rowling’s fantastic social twist when she outed Dumbldore after his wizzard in love flash-backs in Book 7 (funny, I knew he was gay from Book 1), I had hoped that might add some layers to this performer’s approach to the guy (like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gay) but no, aside from the usual creepy hugs and “I don’t think you know how much Dumbledore reeeeeeeeeealllllllyyyyyy liked you, Harry” lines this is the same old wizard.