Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might be the best Potter film yet; but don´t take my word for it, I´ve read none of J.K. Rowling´s books, nor really liked any of the earlier entries, though Sorcerer´s Stone was a successful introduction to this richly detailed world, and Alfonso Cuaron´s Prisoner of Azkaban brought a sense of wonder that I felt the other films lacked. From a non-fan´s perspective, however, the last two – especially Order of the Phoenix – represented a fair amount of tedium.
But not Half-Blood Prince, despite being directed by Phoenix helmer David Yates, and written for the screen by Steven Kloves, who has adapted all the previous films save for Phoenix. Prince is a much tighter, carefully constructed, leisurely-but-fluidly paced adaptation that returns much of the focus to its varied primary characters rather than internal Hogwarts politics, and it´s all the better for it. It´s two-and-a-half hours long, and there´s barely enough plot here for a film half that length, but it’s never boring.
Half-Blood Prince picks up right where Phoenix left off, without much exposition for those who haven´t seen or no longer intimately recall the previous film. After a group of Death Eaters wreak havoc in London and in the wizard realm, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) steals Harry away from a pretty young waitress for an important mission: to find Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), former potions professor at Hogwarts.
Slughorn, you see, taught a certain Tom Riddle, the young boy who went on to become Voldemort, who killed Harry´s parents and is behind all the evil currently going on. Harry and Dumbledore find Slughorn and convince him to come back to teach at Hogwarts, but that´s only part of the battle: Harry must now get him to reveal precious memories of Riddle, and then use these memories in his quest against Voldemort.
This is the main story thrust of Half-Blood Prince, but only a fraction of what´s going on in the film. Other threads include the varied adolescent romances between the students of Hogwarts, the ever-brewing animosity between Harry and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and Harry and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who is now guiding Malfoy, and excursions with other characters from the series, including the Weasley family, Rufus (David Thewlis), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and others. All the storylines are wonderfully composed; this is easily the most engrossing film in the series.
And I was surprised to find how much I had come to care about these characters: Hermione (Emma Watson), who is being wooed by Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) but in love with Ron (Rupert Grint), who is in turn wooed by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave); and Harry, who seems to have feelings for Hermoine, but also Ron´s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and maybe some other members of the young female cast. It´s all Beverly Hills 90210 puppy love stuff, but it works – a large amount of the runtime is devoted to these relationships, and they all ring true.
As does Harry´s Christ-like struggle with acknowledging he is The Chosen One, which is quite nicely contrasted with his antithesis: Draco Malfoy, struggling with his Chosen One status for the dark side. Draco has always felt like a cookie-cutter villain, but he´s been given a lot more depth here.
The style and tone of Half-Blood Prince – dark and brooding – matches the previous film; I had some issues with the direction that film had taken, but maybe I´ve gotten used to it. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Across the Universe) is often striking. Certain scenes, like Harry and Dumbledore´s journey through a dark cavern, are exquisitely staged.
One problem persists: the internal logic of these films, mostly concerning the magic. Perhaps this is better explained in the novels, but I have little idea of what is and isn´t possible in this world, and when two characters are throwing magic spells at each other I have little grasp of the real danger of the situation. In one scene, Harry creates some water in a bowl, then tries in vain to scoop it out with a shell. Why didn´t he just create the water in the shell?
But there are two other issues I´ve taken with the previous Potter films: J.K. Rowling´s world, which feels cobbled together from aspects of witchcraft and fantasy and mythology rather than an independent or original work, and the plot of each individual film, which came across as Scooby Doo mysteries (“and I would´ve gotten away with it if weren´t for you kids!”) The world already established, and the plot taken in a different direction, neither of these bothered me this time around.
I’m pretty sure I know what’s going to happen in the next installment(s). But for the first time in the series, I’m interested in finding out.
Note: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is screening mostly in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens, but you can catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům or Village Cinemas Anděl.
Or, The Limits of (Your) Patience. Jim Jarmusch goes all Godard-arty in The Limits of Control, a painfully slow-moving and (nearly) fatally pretentious film. Jarmusch has made some abstract films before, including the Johnny Depp Western Dead Man, but this is his strangest yet; I can’t imagine many enjoying the experience of sitting through it, but you just might appreciate it, and at the very least, you’ll be thinking about it for awhile afterwards.
Isaach De Bankolé stars as an unnamed hitman (the credits deem him Lone Man) apparently on assignment in Spain (Madrid and elsewhere). He sleeps, stares at the wall, walks around, sits down at a café and orders two espressos in separate cups. A contact appears, confirms that he doesn´t speak Spanish (“No hablas español, verdad?“), spouts off some obscure dialogue, and passes him a cigarette box that seems to contain instructions on a small piece of paper. He looks at the instructions, then eats the paper, just like Forest Whitaker did as the title character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
My theory: the contacts continue to talk in Spanish, which De Bankolé’s character cannot understand, and what we hear is what he imagines they might be saying.
This repeats itself six or so times. Lone Man´s contacts change – there´s Nude (Paz de la Huerta), Blonde (Tilda Swinton), Guitar (John Hurt), Mexican (Gael García Bernal) and so on – but the scenes rarely do. We never know what Lone Man´s assignments are, or what the slips of paper say. We just watch him go from point A to point B, with little to go on in order to interact with the film.
I’ve seen and enjoyed pretentious, slow-moving films in the past, like Gus Van Sant’s recent minimalist output of Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park, or Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, which follows a man driving around for an hour and a half, or (going for an extreme example) Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a static zoom shot that lasts 45 minutes. In films like these, there’s usually a clear intellectual thesis that we can confront, undisturbed, while the events unfold. Or we can zone out and think of other things entirely, using the pictures as daydream springboards.
But there’s a lot going on in between the lines of The Limits of Control, and we’re missing all the basic information needed to confront it. It’s such an aloof, frustrating work: Jarmusch is daring to make sense of the film (the basic plot can be unraveled easily, but the filmmaker’s intent, not so much) and dropping all these surrealist hints so we’re never at peace. In the great surrealist works, films by Buñuel or Lynch, we don’t need to decipher the clues while watching the film, the filmmaking craft is good enough to maintain our interest. Not the case here.
I do love the climatic scenes, which present an impenetrable fortress in the middle of the desert, and show us Lone Man receiving the blueprints, then scouting the building from afar. Then, of course, Jarmusch deprives us of any kind of suspense by just cutting to Lone Man inside the building. Bill Murray walks in and has the film´s best line, what we want to say: “How the fuck did you get in?”
Location cinematography by Christopher Doyle is beautifully composed. As is the music, mostly drone-y acid jazz stuff by Japanese group Boris. If Jarmusch had just grounded this thing in reality, despite the pacing, this would have been a much more pleasing experience.
But it is what it is. You’ll love it or hate it, and I’ll cop out and rate it somewhere in between. But you will remember The Limits of Control, and it’s the kind of film that can inspire some spirited discussion over a couple espressos. Just don´t go in looking for any kind of entertainment; you´ll get more of that from the stuff they make you watch in film school.
Also opening: Pokoj v duši (showtimes), a Slovak drama from director Vladimír Balko, which is screening in Slovak without subtitles on Prague screens.