Some film related thoughts. Fear the spoilers…
A really nice, really sparse and old-school piece of low-budget science fiction. Yes, there are a selection of bizarre science slip ups (from the fact that live Earth-Moon transmissions are possible, to the fact that the Helium-3 mining is supposed to happen on the Moon’s dark side, and yet the frakkin’ EARTH is in the sky…) but none of it takes away the fact that this is a beautifully crafted piece of work that references 2001, Solaris and Silent Running but does manage its own identity. The fact that it does is mainly down to the brilliant work from Sam Rockwell – it’s basically a one man show, and he does it amazingly well. There’s a beautiful soundtrack from Clint Mansell, some brilliant model effects (although it is a bit of a culture shock to see model effects that aren’t the absurdly huge LOTR-style ‘bigatures’, and are relatively unenhanced by CG), and overall it’s a really affecting story that overcomes its restricted budget and delivers quite an impact. A great film that deserved better than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release at my local cinemas (although the fact that we got it at all, being outside of London, is probably something worth toasting…)
Michael Mann is capable of being an absolutely astounding filmmaker. Heat is pretty close to an all-out classic, Manhunter is brilliant despite its stylistic flaws, and he’s also one of the best directors of action I’ve ever seen (for an example – look at the shoot-out at the Korean club in Collateral. It’s set in a club heaving with people, there’s about four sets of characters, there’s music and noise and bustle, and yet you never ever lose your sense of geography – even when the shooting starts, you know exactly where you are, and where everybody is in relation to everyone else). Unfortunately, he’s also quite capable of style over substance – the movie of Miami Vice being a case in point – and that’s what we get here, a film that’s so busy showing us what being a bank robber in the 1930s looked like, it doesn’t actually let us feel anything.
At no point do we actually get into the head of John Dillinger – okay, we’ve got Johnny Depp playing a swaggering, charming bad boy who stays one step ahead of the cops, but while he looks great, we never really understand Dillinger – we’re just along for the ride. And on the flipside there’s Christian Bale as Agent Melvin Purvis, but again we’re not allowed to actually get into Purvis’ head – the whole film is very much a surface experience, an illustrated lecture and a technical exercise that sags very badly between its admittedly impactful and well-choreographed violence. And while I’ve liked Mann’s use of digital cameras up until now, it really doesn’t work here – the results are very visually inconsistent, spoiling any sense of immersion, and often giving the film a very murky and bizarrely cheap look (there were moments where I was reminded of the deliberately murky Inland Empire). There’s some fascinating history here, and there are moments where the film hits the spot, but they’re very few and far between.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
Blame the cheap Saturday morning showings, and the fact that review-wise it’s good for me to keep up with genre films just in case – I wasn’t actually planning on watching HPATHBP, as the original book was the one instalment of the series that I enjoyed the least, but I ended up feeling like I’ve come this far and I might as well see it through to the end, plus I was interested to see how they handled the very obvious flaws in the original. Well… in certain ways they make some very sensible decisions, and in others they make some absolutely confusing and bizarre ones. First up, it does have to be said that this is one of the best-looking of the films yet – gorgeously photographed, with generally excellent CG and brilliant design. It’s also another example of how the central trio have continued to get better and better – much of the entertainment here is down to the character interplay, and the fact that after all this time these are performers who know their roles very, very well. There’s also some sterling work from the rest of the cast – Alan Rickman has an increased (and much-welcome) presence, Michael Gambon has gradually tweaked the eccentricity until his Dumbledore feels almost as perfect as Richard Harris’, Tom Felton finally gets to do more than sneer and does it very well, and above everything there’s Jim Broadbent, who could have easily phoned it in or hammed it up as Slughorn but instead gives a really good, nuanced performance.
But dear oh dear, they’ve failed to do anything about the inherent problems in the original book, and they’ve ended up with the least eventful film in the entire series (which, considering what actually happens here plot-wise, is quite a feat). There’s only so much random ominous build-up you can cope with, and the story is almost nothing but random ominous build-up – there’s no firmly defined central mystery (such as the first three) or a central quest (like Goblet of Fire) or a specific Hogwarts-specific threat (like Order of the Phoenix). It’s essentially lots of floating plot coupons that hang conveniently around to be validated at the end of the year, and while the shift of attention onto the teenage relationships is fun and has plenty of knockabout humour, what you end up with is a veeeeery long 2 1/2 hours. Imagine The Two Towers with all but one action sequence edited out, and you’d still have a more exciting and involving film than we’ve got here – there is some good stuff here, and it does make me intrigued to see what they’ll do with Deathly Hallows (as unlike Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows is absolutely packed to bursting with stuff, and I think the two-film plan is a great idea), but this is nothing but prologue, and not particularly exciting prologue either.
There’s also some exceptionally weird choices in what they’ve added, and what they’ve left out. Now, I’m working slightly blind here as I don’t remember Half-Blood Prince very well, but I know that the attack at the Burrow is an addition, and a very obvious one (Quick! It’s nearly an hour and a half in! Let’s blow something up!). It’s a nicely done sequence, even if it really doesn’t have any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but there’s some other sequences which seem to have been lost in translation. One of the weirdest is Dumbledore’s funeral – it’s one of the few genuinely effective moments in Half-Blood Prince, and you can almost feel Rowling in full “Here’s a really big setpiece for the film” mode, so to keep it completely offscreen is bizarre (the whole ‘banishing the Death-Eater logo in the sky’ moment is good, but slightly derailed by it basically being a whole crowd of people suddenly sticking their arms in the air). It’s actually quite nice that they didn’t do the horribly hackneyed “We can’t be together because it’s too dangerous” sequence between Harry and Ginny, as that nearly made me throw the book across the room, although the relationship does seem to vanish directly after the kiss (and it does have to be said that Bonnie Wright doesn’t exactly hold her own as a performer against the central three, and that again – if you didn’t know the books, you’d look at Harry and Hermione and say “Well, of course they’re going to get together!” – Radcliffe and Watson still have bags of screen chemistry, and way more than Watson and Grint…). The after-effects of the Luck Potion gambit seem to be missing (Ron doesn’t say “Hey- if you’ve still got the luck potion, that means I didn’t drink it!”) – and isn’t there a sequence where he has to Quidditch again without the Potion, and they don’t know if he’ll make it through but he does, and that’s where the big kiss between Ron and Hermione happens? I may be wrong in thinking that – but unless I really did fall asleep somewhere, they also managed to completely lose the final kiss between Ron and Hermione, which is borderline insane (and means that at the moment where Ron and Hermione technically get together, Ron is actually unconscious).
About the one subtraction which I do understand is the big fight at the end – it does suck the drama out of the climax, but when you ended the last film with a pitched magical battle, and you know that Deathly Hallows ends with the mother of all battles in Hogwarts, you’ve got to single out or make the climax here different somehow. Trouble is, they don’t really give it enough impact – and again, you’ve got the problem that ‘revealling’ Snape to be an agent of Voldemort at the beginning of the film makes it so obvious that he’s a double agent that all drama is hoovered out of it (and it’s great watching Alan Rickman playing Snape, and this time being able to actually play with the knowledge of what we find out in Deathly Hallows). Added to this, the Half-Blood Prince’s book barely gets referred to – without Harry’s hero-worship of the mysterious author, you don’t get the shock of the spell on Malfoy going wrong, you don’t get the real impact of Snape being the HBP, and frankly, you don’t really understand why it’s called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It’s the first film since Chamber of Secrets that’s really felt once again like it needed to be a Sunday teatime drama over about six nights rather than a movie, and while there’s a hell of a lot of craft here, it simply can’t turn the original material into something genuinely good. Instead of setting everything up for Deathly Hallows it’s fallen a bit limp – but hopefully they’ll be able to at least give the series the send-off it still deserves.