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Column Fri Jul 17 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, (500) Days of Summer, Three Monkeys, An Unlikely Weapon and Burma VJ

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

One of the many great joys of watching the sixth, and most deeply satisfying, installment in the Harry Potter film series is watching returning director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves beef up characters whose roles (in the movies, at least) have been soundly in the background up to this point. I liked watching members of the Weasley family finally be brought to the foreground in anticipation of major contributions from them in the final two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finale. I was particularly impressed with the way Tom Felton has transformed Draco Malfoy from a sneering bully into a genuine source of tortured menace, worthy of being both feared and pitied. But more than anything, it's great watching every element of the sweeping overall story come together so wonderfully and have the acting by the one-time child performers be able to match the power of the maturing plotlines.

Let me just remind you that after watching the third film, 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I decided that I was going to experience the world of Harry Potter as a strictly cinematic endeavor and hold off reading the J.K. Rowling novels until all of the films had been released. After watching what was for me (until now) the best entry in the series, I felt the way for me to enjoy these films (or not) would be to not constantly be comparing them to the books. I know there are many fan-favorite moments from the novels left out; it happens. That seemed like a distraction I didn't need. In my mind, the filmed versions of these stories needed to stand on their own. Thankfully, with minor exceptions here and there, I've found the entire series to be an exceedingly fulfilling pursuit. And while I have loved playing "Spot the Talented Veteran British Actor" over the course of the works, I've really grown to love the younger characters and their trials.

It should come as no surprise that great sections of The Half-Blood Prince are about sex, which is one of the many reasons I'm surprised this film still managed to secure a PG rating. Rising attraction between the boys and girls was alluded to in the last film, but here, you can almost see the condom in every male character's pocket. And Ron Weasley is the biggest horn dog any PG-rated film has ever seen. Not to mention that the young girls are practically throwing themselves at Harry because of his possible status as "The Chosen One." And Hermione Granger is acting just like a young woman whose hormones are in an uproar over a guy she not only believes she can't have but can't believe she's fallen for in the first place. In one scene, Harry and Ron are lying in bed in their shared room talking about girls they like; you can almost sense the semi-stiffies under their respective covers. It's weird, but it seems absolutely authentic at the same time.

Each new Harry Potter story gives us at least one new teacher, and in this film we may have the greatest addition of all, Jim Broadbent as Professor Horace Slughorn, the new potions instructor returning to Hogwarts after an extended absence. Since little in the Potter world is unconnected, it should come as no surprise that Slughorn's past is tied to that of a young boy named Tom Riddle, who will grow to become Lord Voldemort. Harry and Prof. Dumbledore (a thankfully beefed up role for Michael Gambon) spend a great deal of time together watching memories of Riddle as a child, first meeting a younger version of the headmaster years earlier and then being taught a secret spell by Slughorn that forever changes the fate of many characters. I'd been told that huge sections of The Half-Blood Prince novel were devoted to flashbacks, and while we do get a few in the film, it never struck me that the story dwelled too much in the past to make me miss the present. And Broadbent is one of those exceptional actors I truly could watch in anything and enjoy the experience that much more because of him. He's the embodiment of nervous guilt, and his twitchy behavior kept me in as much suspense as any more overtly scary moment in The Half-Blood Prince.

While I'm calling out actors, let me mention Alan Rickman just because I can. This is maybe only the second of the Harry Potter films where I've really felt the weight of his character fully utilized. I realize the films are following the lead of the books, but I literally crave more Rickman every time I watch these movies. He's all over this one, and he's doing things that appear on the surface to be not very admirable or good, but I've always known that of all the instructors at Hogwarts, Snape held the deepest secrets. As someone who is strictly going by the movies, he's always been my favorite character, and I can't wait to see where his storyline goes.

In an exquisite way, the film ties together and draws parallels between the twisted and churning emotions raging through the young characters on a daily basis and the Riddle flashbacks, showing us a version of the child-who-would-be-Voldemort at about the same age as our heroes are in the present. The lesson is that these beings of pure emotion have chosen to either harness their feelings for good or allow the let them run unchecked and turn them into something terrible. Even more remarkable is the film's ability to make me reconsider so many other aspects of all the previous films. This latest work actually made me a little angry at the first two Harry Potter installments for being too whimsical and action-packed. The Half-Blood Prince is the story that begins the tying up process, and reminds us that no character's life is sacred at this stage of the game.

If it sounds like I'm painting The Half-Blood Prince as something of a talkative number, that's because I am and it is, and that's hardly a bad thing. There's an enormous amount of exposition going on here, but if you're even mildly invested in these characters, it's all wildly interesting. But the focus on relationships and emotion and talking and great acting and the Who's Who of great British thespians made me realize that this is the best art film I've seen this summer, complete with some of the best camera work you're likely to see all year thanks to the masterful French director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. More than that, much like the books, the films have gone well beyond being simply kids' stories and into the realm of fine, rich storytelling the likes of which you just don't get in a typical large-budget summer film. I'm always crowing about how big films lack character development, but The Half-Blood Prince has enough of that for six movies, and I was still itching for more at the end of the film's 150-minute-plus running time.

I was also especially impressed with how the extended scenes between Dumbledore and Harry are handled. The line that I continue to think about is Dumbledore saying, "I'm afraid I must ask too much of you again, Harry" before an especially dangerous mission the two embark on together. He appears to be the kindly, protective grandfather type, but he also sees Harry as a weapon against the Dark Lord and he will wield him as often as he must. The layers and complexity of their relationship are at their epic peak in this installment.

Honestly, I have no complaints about this movie, unless you count just wanting more of this very good thing. I somehow managed to make it through this entire review without even mentioning the names of the actors playing the three lead students (actually, there are a lot of much-loved actors' names I've left out of this review — Helena Bonham Carter, returning as death-eater Bellatrix Lestrange, being at the top of the list). At least for a little while longer, allow me to pretend that there are no actors playing them. They simply are Harry, Hermione and Ron for at least one more very long, two-part movie that I have to wait until November 2010 and July 2011 to see. For the first time since this franchise began, I am eagerly anticipating what happens next to these young wizards and their adversaries. Set the countdown clock for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

(500) Days of Summer

It seems like about 95 percent of all films that profess to be about romance end with the happy couple, having gone through some utterly manufactured drama that rings true on no planet but their own, come out the other side ready to be together and take on the world. Whether the film in question is a romantic comedy (as most of them are) or strictly an attempt at a love story, it's extremely rare to see a film tackle not only the entire span of a relationship but also to spend as much time examining and dissecting the demise of the coupling as it does the passionate rise. Acclaimed music video director Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer is that rare treat that reminds us that not only do more than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, but an even higher percentage of all relationships end in something other than marriage. In an alarming way, 500 Days is a wake-up call for people who think The Proposal is a great movie ($114 million and counting), reminding us that early-stage bliss has to be followed by something, and that something isn't always happily ever after. I don't mean to make the film sound like a downer — the happy times between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) are fun, hilarious, charming, and even fantastical — but every mountain has its valley, and this film refuses to let us for that. Thank god.

For those of you who love Deschanel's brand of quirky humor (yes, please), this film has wheelbarrows full of it. But Deschanel's character loses her lovable oddball sheen quickly. Guys must remember that crazy women to whom we find ourselves strangely attracted are still crazy, and not always in a fun way. The fact that Summer and Tom first bond over their love for The Smiths should have sent up a red flag illuminated by several flares shot up at regular intervals. Director Webb (working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) is wise to let us know early that both sides of this love equation are not perfect people, and when their feelings are hurt or they just grow tired or annoyed with each other, they aren't going to hide it. Watching Deschanel turn nasty is a slap in the face, and it's kind of awesome to watch her try on something besides a baby-doll dress and tights (literally and figuratively). She's not completely breaking her own mold, but she's caused it some serious structural damage.

The real shocker in 500 Days is Gordon-Levitt, playing something I can only refer to as a "normal guy." After such startling and impressive performances in films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, The Lookout, Stop-Loss and Havoc, I honestly didn't know if he had any interest in playing a character that resembles a leading man. But make no mistake, Tom isn't exactly a conventional leading man. He's a failed architect who now does a pretty bang-up job writing greeting cards, the perfect job for a sensitive man who is clearly in touch with his feelings, even if he couldn't identify most of them in a lineup. When Summer comes to work for the greeting card company, Tom notices her immediately and the countdown (count-up?) begins. You see, the titular 500 Days is deliberately misleading (as are the glorious trailers and commercials). It is not the length of their relationship, not exactly. It is a far more harrowing and melancholy span of time, and as the narration reminds us (or perhaps warns us), "This is not a love story."

I haven't mentioned the structure of the film yet, because I don't want you to get hung up on it like it's some kind of gimmick. As you may have heard, the 500 Days are not presented in chronological order. In fact, they usually bounce back and forth between early days and end of days, and eventually meet in the middle but even that doesn't quite explain it. There are little tells about where we are in the course of their time together — Summer's hair changes a bit, moods are different, the passion levels are high and low — but by the end of the film, none of that really matters. Going into the film, I had assumed that, by presenting his movie in this manner, Webb would help us spot that exact moment when the tide turned on this coupling. Quite the opposite turns out to be true. If anything, he underscores how two separate instances in their lives only a couple of days apart can appear like night and day. So what happened in between? That's just the point. Nothing specific sets things in the wrong direction. It just happens, and that almost makes it more heartbreaking, because there's nothing that could have been prevented.

There I go again, wading into the downbeat parts of the film. But it's those parts that separate 500 Days from, well, everything else. But even the more conventional stuff shines. If you've watched the commercials for the film closely enough, you may have noticed there appears to be a dance number in the film, and that sequence is phenomenal and deliberately misleads the audience into thinking this is going to be just another silly rom-com that would feature such a moment. And while Webb and his cast certainly aren't making fun of such moments in standard-issue Hollywood romances, there's a gentle mocking going on that is unmistakeable. Of course, (500) Days of Summer is a film loaded with flawed people. Tom loves too much; Summer can't seem to love enough (or at least not love Tom enough); and the people giving them advice are exactly like the idiots that give you advice. I guess it kind of goes without saying — but I'll say it anyway, so there's no confusion — I love this movie with an obsession much like Tom's for Summer: it's unhealthy, but it makes me feel so good. And it rekindled my passion for Hall & Oates music. Don't judge me, you bastards! Time to dance...

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb.

Three Monkeys

After making two films (Distant and Climates) that were largely haunting images strung together by a loose story, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (who won Best Director at last year's Cannes Film Festival for this film) has assembled a film that exists to prod and probe what the differences are between feeling guilty and being guilty. When a noted politician (Ercan Kesal) is involved in a drunken hit-and-run accident, he convinces/bribes his driver (Yavuz Bingol) to take the fall for him, and he's sent away to jail for two years. A lump-sum payment is promised to the family upon Bingol's release, but his wife (Hatice Aslan) and slacker son (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) decide they need the money sooner. Aslan approaches the politician about getting the money earlier, and ends up in a tawdry sexual affair with him that goes on for much of her husband's incarceration.

In truth, this was a family that wasn't doing too well before Bingol decided to lie for his boss, but when the son finds out about the affair and attempts to keep it from his father upon his release, all hell breaks loose. It sounds like the making of a great family film crossed with a noirish betrayal story, but everything in Three Monkeys (starting with its title, which I assume refers to Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, none of which is reflected in the film) feels about a beat too slow, and that throws the whole production off. The performances are good, especially from Kesal and Bingol, but the mechanical plot seems tired and just plain off. I was also put off by the fact that the politician's crime (vehicular manslaughter) is treated as less of an offense than a woman having an affair. I'm not here to champion cheating wives, but the emotional response to both incidents seems remarkably disjointed. I guess it's a cultural thing. Director and co-writer Ceylan have assembled a striking film to look at, but a strike in the face in terms of his film's moral platitudes. And while I watched Three Monkeys with some amazement initially, I realize now that I was largely appalled by what I was watching. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

An Unlikely Weapon

Two films open this weekend that show two very different, but equally dangerous, sides of journalism — specifically journalism during times of conflict. Director Susan Morgan Cooper's An Unlikely Weapon is an absolutely essential profile of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams, who had 13 wars under his belt and photographed presidents, celebrities, and other world figures, as well as documented some of the most horrific moments in history and crimes against human rights. But it is for one photograph in particular that Adams will be remember, even if he was not impressed with either the image or the impact it had on the Vietnam War. You know the photo. It's the one of the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head. It's one of the most horrific images you'll ever see; at the exact moment Adams took the picture, the bullet was still in the prisoner's head, according to Army officials. Adams was by no means an antiwar journalist, looking for the worst atrocities he could find in Vietnam. He was an ex-soldier himself, so having a photo he took make American servicemen look bad shamed him to a degree. But most of the acclaimed anchormen and other photojournalists in the film agree that it was that single image that marked the beginning of the end of the war.

Adams is portrayed as cantankerous, confrontational, a carouser who lived life the fullest, but never missed an opportunity to teach a younger photographer or journalist what to look for in a battlefield situation. In his later years, he opened up a school of photography that seems to confirm that Adams was also a great teacher. The film does a great job making it clear that in his own life, Adams was always looking for a challenge. He may not have even liked the assignment, but if it was different than anything he'd done before, he'd do it. He shot for Penthouse and for Parade magazines. His celebrity photos were some of the most original of their time. I particularly love the story told about Adams shooting a single roll of film during a Clint Eastwood photo shoot, and Clint being so impressed with his expedience and talent that he used one of the shots (the one that shows Clint holding a revolver behind his back) as the movie poster for Unforgiven.

Since Adams died some years back, it's actually kind of astonishing how much archival footage there is of him at work in his studio, being interviewed, or in the field. Fleshed out with some great interviews with legends of journalism (Peter Jennings and Tom Brokow among them), An Unlikely Weapon is a film about a man who to whom fame clearly meant nothing. He saw his fame as a means to get the freedom he wanted to do the work he desperately loved. This is a staggeringly good movie that should be seen by anyone who remembers time when news gatherers weren't led by the hand (by a political party or a publicist or an advertiser) and when combat photography still meant something.

The film is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center Friday, July 17 at 8pm; Sunday, July 19 at 4:15pm; Tuesday, July 21 at 8pm; and Thursday, July 23 at 6:15pm. Director Susan Morgan Cooper will be present on Friday and Sunday for audience discussion.

Burma VJ

This mostly English-language Danish film is about a very different kind of journalist, one whose life is on the line just for using a video camera in public to record daily events in a military dictatorship. These citizen reporters are the only record of some fairly appalling behavior. In the cast of this film, the pirate filmmakers are in Burma working for the Democratic Voice of Burma, who are using the latest video recorders and satellite data methods to transmit raw images to top news agencies. I can't wait to see the film about how Twitter has been the only real source of unsanitized news images and information about the violence in Iran. Burma VJ is that story but told with some unsettling images taken by folks, many of whom are currently in jail for life. The film is also one of the most suspenseful movies you will see all year, with some cameraman literally hiding in trees and bushes with soldiers standing just feet from them.

When the citizenship of Burma got a whiff of freedome in August 2007, protest marches began in full force, many of which were captured by these renegade but highly organized camera crews. It's kind of terrifying to know that a large number of people on the street in a busy city are government or military spies who clamp down with lightening speed when a small protest begins or when they spot someone using a camera. Interestingly, the film focuses on "Joshua," one of the DVB leaders who is holed up out of country attempt to coordinate his ghost crews because it's too dangerous for him to be in Burma. (He's arrested early in the film, and narrowly escapes imprisonment before he gets out of the country.) The pipeline to get material out of the country is pretty reliable, but like all great smuggling operations, one false move and a lot of people go down.

Some of the images and stories told about this moment of freedom are tough to hear. Peace-loving monks are taken from their monastery in the middle of the night, beaten and thrown in prison. A journalist from Japan is caught being shot execution style by a soldier just for filming a protest march being broken up by the authorities. There are very few moments in this gripping documentary that aren't terrifying, and we should be scared. There isn't much by way of interviews in Burma VJ, and why do we need any? The footage speaks for itself, and shows us that technology can be used to humiliate or catch in lies even the most powerful tyrants. It's the powerful message at the center of this vital movie. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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