Thursday, July 30, 2009

Now Playing: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Years ago, I made a promise to myself as I walked out of the theatre after watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: I would not compare the movies to the books. In fact, I would treat them as two separate entities. After all, it's not fair to compare Rowling's septological epic to the Potter franchise of movies; there is simply no way to pack in the kind of detail you find in the novels into a two (or even three) hour movie. I had also decided that I would never complain about what's been left out as long as the spirit of the books were kept sacrosanct.

Yesterday, I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HPVI). Poppets, you are either a fan and have watched the movie or you're not and you haven't. Either way, you ought not care but I shall warn you anyway: spoilers abound below. Also, please excuse the rambling nature… I have so many thoughts and no seemingly logical way to order them.

Half-Blood Prince is one of my favourite HP books, mostly because it features my favourite character from the series, the awesome Severus Snape. It's also the book that sees one of the biggest battles in the series (Hogwarts v Death Eaters), the culmination of two beautifully drawn-out romances (Ginny/Harry & Ron/Hermione), the creepiest scene thus far (inferi= eww) and, of course, the death of the Headmaster. So much more happens, but I thought if these four things could be dealt with in a respectable way, I would be quite happy.

Enter last night. I hadn't watched the movie with everyone else two weeks ago because I wanted to wait for the 3D experience. The 3D was pretty well done - lots of neat tricks and visual effects. Unfortunately, the opportunity was completely squandered by using all twelve minutes right at the beginning… I mean, NOTHING happens in the beginning! Well, not at the beginning of the book, at any rate. The HPVI team decided to add a scene at the beginning, departing for the first time from the tradition of Harry Potter as witness (both in movies and books) - last night, I saw scenes that Harry himself did not. Didn't like that, but the flashy 3D distracted me enough.

Before I go any further, let's get something straight. Half-Blood Prince was not an action-packed book (like Goblet of Fire or even Order of the Phoenix); in truth, I thought this book was the most introspective of the lot and had much more quiet substance than flashy theatrics. Inferi and Hogwarts battle aside (we'll come back to that), this is a book about another book (a defaced potions book at that… not even a cursed book that bites people). So, yes, I was expecting a "slower" movie, but one that really developed Snape's character (as he is so pivotal) and relied on emotion over explosion.

Well, colour me surprised when the HPVI team decided to add yet something else: the Battle at the Burrow. Smack dab in the middle of the movie there's a pointless exchange of curses that does absolutely nothing to drive the plot forward and, despite burning down the Burrow, no one ever mentions it again - neither Ron nor Ginny, for whom the burrow is home nor Harry for whom the Burrow represents asylum from the Dursleys. What? What is the point, man?

At this point, I'm slightly annoyed. I remember reading that there were time constraints and that's why many pivotal scenes were left out or altered. So, how is there time to add two flashy, big-budget scenes?

Flash-forward to the end of the movie, where we see Snape do in Dumbledore. It's only a credit to Madame Pomfrey that I even teared up, otherwise this scene was too abrupt and far too quick. No funeral? No Fawkes' lament? No White Tomb? It was terrible. Just terrible. And then, everyone just runs away - no battle at all between the old DA (which the previous movie had taken such pains to establish), the Aurors and Professors versus Death Eaters. This is where we could have used some big budget money, dammit! While I didn't absolutely hate the way this scene was treated, I think the no-funeral thing really put me in a foul mood.

You know where else we could have used some cool 3D tech? The Inferi/Cave scene… how cool would that have been to see the undead lunge out at you (instead of a stuffed chair).

Finally: the characters. It's really a credit to the casting director from the original HPI who found these kids. I believe Harry, Ron and Hermione. I totally buy all the Weasleys, actually. And Draco… wow, Tom Felton has really come into his own. I mean, he looked like a wreck: he was pale, he was nervous.. even his trademark Malfoy-sneer was dimmed. Michael Gambon finally seemed to channel the gentler side of Dumbledore that I felt he was always missing (it's too bad the costuming decided to make him into Gandalf in the process). And, of course, Alan Rickman is simply stellar, despite being seriously underutilised. I mean, we've waited six movies for Snape to become a DADA teacher and we don't even get ONE scene with him teaching? That's ridiculous. The real saving grace of this whole debacle was definitely Jim Broadbent's Slughorn. Though he looks nothing like the walrus-like man described by Rowling, I think Broadbent really did the best job in portraying the puffed-up, self-aggrandising professor who lives vicariously through the glories of his former students while having to live with the dire consequences of one particular Slug Club member.

So, what I'm about to say actually has no bearing on the actors' or their abilities.
…I just did not buy the blossoming of the Ginny/Harry romance. I had thought that they should have done a better job of laying the foundations in HPV (making Ginny roll her eyes at Cho just once would have done the trick), but they almost did nothing to build it up in HPVI. The book is so subtle in how it develops…but wait, I promised not to talk about the book. The movies have never hinted an attraction to Ginny on Harry's part (HPII at least had a very shy Ginny around Harry) and suddenly he's all in love. What? And while Ron and Hermione finally seemed to open that door, the end of the movie has Ron not "remembering" his calling out Hermione's name in the hospital and they've done nothing to pursue. Again: what?

So, back to original checklist: very little Snape, no Hogwarts Battle, an abbreviated Dumbledore death scene, and two lacklustre romances have left a very bitter taste in my mouth. And this from a movie that I thought would have been the easiest to bring to the big screen, what with it being character-driven? The only thing that was done well was the Inferi scene, but I think it's because someone went through great lengths to reproduce the cover art from the UK/Canadian versions. Boo. It pains me a great deal to do this: 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Now Playing: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Ahh, another Michael Bay film. If you want things to blow up, this is your guy. Especially French things.

Anyway, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is a marked improvement over the first instalment (and a clear setup for the third). The 'bots themselves were coloured differently - more vivid, brilliant - and this made it much easier to follow who was fighting whom in any (of the many) action sequences. The 'cons, sadly, remained quite grey, but at least they had distinct faces/bodies: my movie comrade tells me he had a hard time differentiating between Starscream and Megatron ...having always had this problem, I actually thought the movie made it easier, in fact. The plot wasn't bad either, considering the big bad was a direct ripoff/homage to both Alien and Starcraft. And while Shia Leboeuf made me wish Alice would get on with the killing already, the other characters make up for it, especially Agent Simmons.

Much popcorn was munched; a few scenes even made me say "whoa!" but I still took a bathroom break and missed nothing - clearly, a bad sign. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Now Playing: Public Enemies

Jack Sparrow vs. Batman!
...wait a minute, that's not right. This is the John Dillinger biopic, Public Enemies. Honestly, though, they had me at Johnny Depp.

I watched this a while ago (Wednesday? Thursday?) and I should have just written the review then and there. I remember liking it quite a bit - especially Marion Cotillard's Billie and Billy Crudup's Hoover. The directing was tight and the acting was really solid.

I am disappointed to read about the inaccuracies that pervade the film, all in an effort to elicit more sympathy for the outlaw. i am always uncomfortable with films that claim to be "historic" or "biographical" and are blockbusters at the same time. I often feel that directors and screenwriters will be forced to change the details a little in order to get the action sequences right or give the characters some motivation or even to simply appeal to a general audience where only a specific one would normally be attracted.

I did enjoy the movie and was more than prepared to give it 4 out of 5 stars; however, given the fact that facts have been changed and yet the "biopic" billing remains the same: 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

reading on the rails

The trip to NFLD took 3 days by train (return)... I spent it equal parts reading and sleeping. There was a lot of reading. I reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in anticipation of the movie... I miss J.K. Rowling and I hope she writes more.

On to fresh reads:

1) The Winter's Vault by Anne Michaels.
I waited for thirteen years for one of my favourite authors to write again and, lo, Ms. Michaels gave us her second work. It's hard not to compare the two books - I mean, there are only two! - and the style is as dense and dripping with poetry as it ever was. One of the things I love about Michaels is her turn of phrase - her writing is almost edible and, appropriately, I always feel full after finishing a few pages. Unlike most books which I can devour in one or two sessions, Michaels' work needs to be put down and savoured. Her first work still remains my favourite of hers, but TWV did not disappoint. It has a way of eviscerating you even while you choke up with tenderness and despair. It's brilliant really. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, read this.

2) The Viking Discovery of America by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad. I read this book in desperation - I had finished my two "vacation" books and I was waiting for Nish to finish hers so I could read that too. After a couple of hours of napping and picture deleting I remembered that I had purchased this book at the gift shop in L'Anse! Written in a conversational tone, the Ingstads explained the discovery of the Viking site, the archaeological facts found within, the sagas and conflicting myths surrounding these journeys (fascinating, that) and the impact it's had on both our understanding of North American natives and on early European exploration. Often, Natives are portrayed as witless victims of European expansionism and cruelty; it is nice to see that five hundred years before Amerigo Vespucci touched ashore, the Beothuk Indians were holding their own against the fierce Vikings... holding and winning, mind you. The whole read is simply riveting.. if you're into that sort of thing. Thankfully, I am.

3) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
Desperate to make the time pass (and teased with little snippets throughout the journey), I gobbled this book down in mere hours. As the review says at the back, this really is a perfect read for a long train ride. Written in a series of letters between Juliet Ashton and a number of other characters (including the eponymous group), I think Shaffer/Barrows do an amazing job of making Juliet your friend and you, her confidante. The writing is pithy, witty and altogether marvelous. It was like reading the Gilmore Girls, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw all at once. There were some sobering moments - when writing about German Occupations during WWII, it's hard not to have a few of those - but in all, the books uses gentle and sharp humour in equal doses. If you're ever stuck on a train for thirty hours, pack this one.

the (original) edge of the world

So, I'm back from my whirlwind tour of the east coast gem known as NFLD and Labrador. May I just say that more people need to have a better appreciation of that amazing place. It's full of history AND nature - can it get better? Before I left, I had made a mental list of things I wanted to see and do while I was over there and I'm pleased to report I batted 1.000. Fourteen pages of journal only skim the surface of the whole experience.

Food: I ate so much seafood in nine days, my body actually craved iron. It was pretty amazing: cod tongues, pork scrunchions, scallops, fish chowder, snow crab... we even picked our own lobster for dinner - not from a tank, oh no... from a lobster trap off the pier. Georgina was delicious. There was also moose burgers and caribou steaks. Yes, we ate well.

Nature: if you like to hike, NLFD is the place for you. They have trails of varying lengths (thirty minutes to eight hours) and degrees (easy-moderate-steep-mountainous). I will admit that I didn't do it nearly the justice I'd have liked, but next time, there will be better hiking boots and smaller backpacks and appropriate headwear. And yes, there will be a next time. Some of my favourite places include the drive between Red Bay and L'Anse Aux Loup (Labrador), Western Brook Pond, and Saint Anthony.

History: NFLD boasts not one but two UNESCO World heritage sites: L'Anse aux Meadows and Gros Morne National Park. While the Tablelands are beautiful, mythophiles like myself are just drawn to the 1000-year-old Viking ruins found at the northern tip of the island. Others will do a better job of explaining the deep significance of this site - not just to Canadian history, but to how we view global human relations as a whole. It's a beautiful site, lovingly preserved for "future considerations" and meticulously replicated a few metres away so you can explore freely, touching anything you like and peppering the "villagers" with curious questions ... I mean, is it really true that a woman led an expedition here? (it is, btw).

People: I don't think I've been to place where the people were quite so welcoming. B&B's were full of hosts and hostesses that chatted with you and told great stories about polar bear visitors or played the accordion over breakfast. They almost never locked their front doors, often kept the keys in the ignition and waved when you drove through town. It truly was relaxing because you didn't worry about someone taking your wallet while you were outside taking pictures of the sunset or even locking doors behind you as you left for the day. The people are reason enough to return.