Thursday, July 30, 2009

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Devil May Care

You know the stakes are high for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in his sixth year at Hogwarts when headmaster Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon) appears within five minutes of The Half-Blood Prince. Indeed the film opens with a shot of Death-Eaters running foul in London and a cloud formation briefly manifests the dark lord Voldermort. Harry is initially also found in the Muggle world enjoying the twin delights of nightly coffee and picking up a potential date. The escapism is touching but also acts as a catalyst for what is to come. For what marks the transformative relevance of The Half-Blood Prince is the juxtaposition of the threat on Potter’s life to our own as Muggles. By the end of Order of the Phoenix, Voldermort had shed any reservation of taking out anyone who dares stand in his way. His then brief clash with Dumbledore was merely buying for time. Now his minions are forcing an all-out attack and that includes randomly terrorizing humans.

With the Ministry of Magic being slowly overrun, Dumbledore realizes that his options have tightened considerably and sets out to amass all he needs to thwart Voldermort for the last time. That includes, of course, Potter but the scope of Dumbledore’s thinking is finally laid out. He carries Harry along to convince an old friend, Prof. Slughorn (the ever excellent Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts. Both men know the real reason behind the request is not merely to resume teaching potions yet Slughorn agrees. Harry is in awe watching the two wizards as they display magic before him, not realizing the role he will later play. Dumbledore wants a particular memory from Slughorn, one that he feels will help to destroy Voldermort. Dumbledore’s manner here is increasingly human. In many ways, The Half-Blood Prince is the first real examination of him. The previous films have maintained an invincible yet distant aura about him but here we see the ineffability of his role. His scholarly pitch is effective to convey thought yet it bends more tenderly the more it centers on Harry. It is the best Gambon performance of the series so far because the duality involved has never had so much impetus behind it.

But if Dumbledore represents all that is good about wizardry then he also knows that tactics have to be dire in perilous times. He dangles Potter in front of Slughorn like a prize to be had while impressing upon Harry the importance of ‘allowing’ Slughorn to win his confidence over so as to collect the memory. He goes as far as to show Harry the tampered memory through the Pensieve. Here the general aloofness of Dumbledore plays well against the request. There is something almost homoerotic in which Harry is to befriend Slughorn that is never stated yet it hangs in the air thickly. Broadbent’s exquisite performance lends credence to this idea as Slughorn is atypically vain, romantically attached to his students’ achievements and clearly a man hungry for attention. The flashbacks of him and Tom Riddle (the young Voldermort played efficiently by Frank Dillane) show how the latter played on Slughorn’s self-importance to elicit information. Of course, being a film for the PG-13 audience, The Half-Blood Prince makes this impression then relents even though screenwriter Steve Kloves is able to fire off some potent stuff. More salacious is the memory of Dumbledore’s initial meeting with Voldermort at the orphanage where he grew up. The young lad becomes only excited when Dumbledore sets his a part of his room on fire. There is a scary yet impressionable glint in his cold eyes. I think there’s something in your wardrobe that’s trying to get out, Tom, states the elder wizard in reference to things Riddle has stolen. I can speak to snakes, they tell me things about people, Riddle shoots back and the headmaster cannot hide his shock. One sense a vague homoerotic reference between the two or at least the beginning of a power struggle for supremacy or even both entwined in messiness that the film does not resolve.

Kloves works just as hard at character development of others except the villains. Voldermort is only present in flashbacks and memories. Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) remains painfully enigmatic as is Snape (another delicious Alan Rickman one-tone performance). The film’s main antagonist is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) but the progression from student rebel to budding Death Eater is not sufficiently presented. He remains the film’s weakest link because his family ties to the dark lord are never brought up for a proper examination. Which is odd because The Half-Blood Prince promised to be redemptive for the character, a kind of temptation-based trial to be overcome or overrun by. It is only towards the end, where the irreversible damage is done, do we see Malfoy’s doubts about the path that was chosen for him. We can surmise his loneliness but never truly feel it as how we can feel the twitches of adolescent love emerging from Harry, Hermione (Emma Thompson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). Here the film succeeds in showing the youthful romantic interest and the adult recognition of it. In one scene, Harry and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) find themselves staring at each other in the Weasely household. Arthur Weasely watches them then quickly leaves and they are alone for a few seconds before Ron comes crashing between them uneasily. Ron is himself battling to define the extent of interest in Hermione. He becomes a hero in Quidditch thus girl-bait and one in particular sets out to claim him with a zeal that irks Hermione.

At over 150 minutes though, director Davis Yates is yet again criminally overusing elements that needed to be scaled back. Ron’s lovesick portions end up annoyingly cutting into his time as emerging finally from Harry’s shadow. We see Malfoy repeating the same (dis)appearance trick without realizing the implications beforehand. Bellatrix taunts the Weaselys without any real reason while repeating lines from the last film. Of the three only Malfoy arrives at some epiphany that has repercussions and even then that is swallowed up by the final thirty minutes. The film takes on new life at that point when Dumbledore discovers Slughorn’s secret memory of passing on information to Tom Riddle about horcruxes, dark magic that allows wizards to store parts of their soul into objects. In such a state the wizard would never die unless the horcruxes be destroyed. Dumbledore and Harry set off to destroy a potential horcrux yet both are nearly vanquished by the effort. In his greatest scene, Gambon flips from authoritative to pleading as draughts of poison must be consumed by him to get the cursed amulet. It maddens him but he helps Harry escape from the Inferni, guardians of the cave where the amulet was hidden. They Apparate back to Hogwarts where separate fates await them in the form of Snape.

What happens next yet again proves how Dumbledore’s calculations prevail overtime but still sting in the short-term. Hogwarts becomes vanquished as there is a glorious shot of Bellatrix in all her mad-cap glory eliminating the light from the dining hall while Malfoy sobs openly. The damage is done but the gamble played by Dumbledore is threatened to be for naught if Harry’s fury cannot be abated. Taken into the headmaster’s confidences only to be deserted yet again, he reacts by violently attacking Malfoy, using Snape’s own curses against him and, ultimately, questioning Dumbledore himself. It is the crux of The Half-Blood Prince; the point where the student questions the master. No one has the nerve to answer him except Lupin, who quips the film’s most telling line. ‘Dumbledore trusts Snape, therefore so do I… it all comes down to a question of judgment.’ Judgment indeed and one that must be repeated several times to be believed.

RATING: 7.5/10

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Bachelor (Patrick Wolf) (2009)

Version 2.0

If like me your first experience of Patrick Wolf was the shocking red hair two years ago then what has happened since comes as no surprise. Shamelessly ambitious and talented, Wolf represents a cultural oddity in popular music even though he wasn’t aware of that status until this record. The Bachelor thus serves as a buffer, or, more appropriately, a barrier to reflect on as well as to go beyond. There is no proverbial ‘going back’ now for him, especially with there being no more Universal execs to guide his career. The Magic Position garnered him a huge fan base two years ago because even then his potential was obvious so with initial plans for his next project to be a double-album, many wondered what next from the Brit.

Many critics have cited that the decision to split the double album’s worth of music into separate halves has negated the full scale of his ambition this time around. Those critics fail though to understand Wolf’s immense appetite for self-reinvention. It is this trait that serves him yet measures the reception of his music. The Bachelor, though over-reaching at times, is very much an epic statement, the type of artistic bravura that has almost vanished from pop music ever since the start of this decade. Swinging from personal politics to depression to falling in love, The Bachelor is an immediate indie experience.

The opening track, Hard Times sums up in its pristine production and steely lyrics the state of Wolf’s mind and the recording industry at large (we have grown to ignore/ mediocrity applauded/ show me some revolution/ this battle will be won). One track in and we are welcomed to the world Wolf inhabits and the showman and dramatist in him shines superbly. Along with Hard Times, the next four tracks help to form an amazing arc of consistency that rivals any other album this year so far.Oblivion stutters to life with sweeping violin and a lush programmed beat without letting up. The title track tackles the topical issue of gay marriage without being too pointed. Wolf is at his resonant best here yet the result is gorgeous and reflective, making it one of the best songs of the year. It even manages to make guest vocalist Eliza Carthy sound manly, further complicating the track. Damaris laments the loss of a lover due to religious belief (my God damned Damaris/killed with last kiss/ I loved you) while Thickets reels away into such lovely Celt musicianship that one ignores its lack of a message.

The other stuff is engaging too: from that stinging political line, ‘in this war without and end/ what fear do you defend?’ of Count of Casualty to Vulture and its decidedly disco groove that doesn’t quite work but it’s fascinating to hear Wolf wrap himself up into the effort of being pretentiously someone else.

Not everything works quite as smoothly though. Unlike his last album, the ballads here---Theseus, The Sun is often Out—lack the same immediacy that a track like Bluebells had. Both tracks seem at odds with the tone of the album, as if the switch from major label to independent funding source caught them in a cross-fire. It’s as if when the context of his music strays from his personal politics, Wolf is left in a bit of a lurch. Without a sense of societal injustice to highlight, Wolf becomes trapped with the confrontation he seeks to flee from: his former mirror image. He seems to realize this midway Blackdown as he questions himself, ‘desire/desire/you are not the maker of me’, which ends the track. One can argue that ambition is the maker of him but what Wolf doesn’t highlight enough is what he’s pushing back against. Battle trudges its pop/rock terrain, battling homophobia, anti-human rights and conservatism, et al while The Messenger ends things optimistically. Nice enough but here I have to agree with his detractors who claim that his sense of artistry at such turns is vague and do not cut deep enough to the root problem. Tilda Swinton and Alec Empire are present with nice touches but still they merely camouflage the enigmatic leading man.

Wolf’s brilliance as an artist has never been in doubt and now, with The Bachelor, his evolution as an entertainer is entering an original phase. Never mind that his music videos are gaudy and still reflective of his heroes (Bowie’s White Duke, Madonna circa 1990) his real accomplishment is surviving the split with Universal. Funding for The Bachelor was completed after an appeal to fans through (the remarkable FrYars—you heard about him here first—followed the same route). It’s a novel way for direct interchange between fans and musician and allows an artist like Wolf to express ideas, flaws and all, without big label interference. Universal no doubt would have tweaked the misses here but perhaps we’d never hear the title track either. That alone speaks volumes about the importance of his split and freedom to create art in any explicit way he chooses. It is at those times, when he is his new liberated self, that his battles are won.

RATING: 8.10/10