I had the same reaction when I hit a spot of rare gold here in Ulaanbaatar: an illegal DVD copy of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" that was of pristine visual quality. The last month's worth of movies had not been worthy of more than background noise for other activities. I did no more than pay a dim sort of attention to streams of dumb DVD comedies ("Don't Mess with the Zohan," "The Proposal," "Sex and the City: The Movie"... all badly captured on smuggled camcorders in some multiplex in Szechuan) while drawing cartoons or writing letters. These movies would show up grey and shaky on my laptop screen. Still, visual quality didn't matter to me since I would only listen to the jokes while keeping my eyes on the page in front of me.
Nevertheless, as soon as I popped in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," it was clear from the opening menu alone that this would be a movie that would demand my full attention. Perhaps it was the first opening notes of the soundtrack- more of an adult Howard Shore melody than the childish John Williams tunes that have been the hallmark of the previous Harry Potter movies. Or perhaps it was the wonderful opening of an ultra-modern board room in 2009 London where a group of bankers have paused whatever usual activities take place in high glass skyscrapers to look at some realistically fearsome storm clouds. The camera then zooms over London, but what a wonderfully fantastical London it is! I use "fantastical" not in the Willy Wonka sense of the word but in the Neil Gaiman sense ... a reality that is pregnant with all sorts of wondrously dangerous surrealities. The London shown at the beginning of "The Half-Blood Prince is an ancient and eerie city that could easily accomodate a parallel magical world or three. You could easily believe that a mere tap of a brick wall or a crack in a wardrobe could bring you to supernatural wonder.
Or perhaps it is the wonderfully twisting architecture of Knockturn Alley where the camera meanders along the cobblestones up the Elizabethan village walls and over the tile roofs until we see the peeping faces of Ron and Harry spying over a ridgepole. J.K. Rowling has a couple of gifts. One of them is to leave the answer to a mystery a genuine surprise. Even veteran whodonit readers are surprised by her revelations at the end of each Harry Potter novel. Rowling is able to not only provide clues to an obvious culprit for the amateurs but also more subtle clues for the seasoned seekers within her books. All clues are false, of course. The real person can never be suspected. Rowling's crowning achievement in this area, perhaps, was the revelation that Draco Malfoy really WAS the culprit despite the audience's insistence that it could not be simply because it was too obvious.
Another one of Rowling's gifts is to describe oodles of details in just a few short sentences. Unlike the unfortunate reams of purple prose that Anne Rice always stuffed her novels with to convey atmosphere Rowling was (in the early books, at least) able to portray the beautifully Victorian architectural fantasy of the Hogwarts express or the school of Witchcraft and Wizadry or the Gringotts Vault or the Candy Shop with just a few sentences. After reading her books I used to draw massive ink-and-watercolor drawings of the candy shop or the Hogwarts express.... almost but not quite getting the extraordinary detail of the atmosphere. David Yates finally did it for me with his movie.
But I must go back to finding the single element that makes "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" amazing. I am still at a loss as to how to isolate it.Perhaps it is the beautiful shot of the camera sweeping up a Hogwarts turret during a dark and snowy night whilst, through the yellow-lit windows, the dreamy image of Ron and Lavender embracing as they run up the stairs presents itself fleetingly before allowing the camera to sweep sideways to a brooding Nosferatu-esque Draco Malfoy.
Or perhaps it is the surprisingly scary image of Katie Bell's pale, screaming face framed by long black hair .... her mouth gaping wide in agony as she hurled into a crucifix position against a misleadingly twee British snowscape? I was startled by how horrifying that image was. No doubt the actress' face was tweaked a bit during the CGI process but points must be given to newcomer Georgina Leonidas... the Fay Wray of silent screams.
Or is it the rather affecting scene of Hermione, lonely and heartbroken, allowing the chirping charm spells she has created to twirl unnoticed around her head? Actually, that scene was compartively weak but the score that was written for it was so beautiful that it made the scene come off as poignant.
Or was it Helena Bonham Carter (who appears drawn to artistically dark, Burton-esque cinematography like Tom Batiuk is to artificial tragedy. Seriously, I can understand "Sweeney Todd" but "Terminater 4?" Sweetie, that visual style wasn't Burton-esque. It was just muddy.) whose cinematic Bellatrix possesses an energetic, happily evil insanity that is a welcome change to J.K. Rowling's Bellatrix? The Bellatrix of the books was a thuggish, somewhat evil-by-the-numbers character who was recognized by her dark hair and "heavy jaw." Casting Bonham Carter in the part of Bellatrix is thus rather hilarious since everyone knows that the actress' considerable beauty is drawn together by her delicate, almost non-existent jawline.
Or was it Bonnie Wright, who brought a wonderfully adult, serene confidence to the role of Ginny Weasley? J.K. Rowling's Ginny started as a starried-eyed child and later grew up to be a rather boring beauty who marries Harry Potter. In the movie Ginny is a preternaturally mature teenager who, while not exactly beautiful, possesses so much calm, understated strength that it is easy to see why Harry loves her.
No. All these aspects of this wonderful new installment of the Harry Potter, a movie which even beats the amazing "Prisoner of Azkaban," are a large part of the success. It must be said, however, that what truly elevates this Harry Potter is the fact that this movie is an adult movie. There is none of the pleading cutsiness that plagued the first five movies or so (though a scene in a toy shop at the beginning of the movie comes perilously close). Also, more importantly, director David Yates understands that those who fell in love with Harry Potter in the late nineties are now college graduates and well-acquainted with the realities of life. This movie is made for them. Perhaps nothing drives this home more clearly than a scene at the beginning of the movie where Harry Potter arranges a hook-up with a pretty cafe waitress. It was striking how realistic the dialogue was during that scene. Harry's tentative, self-deprecatory statements combined with the girl's quiet but knowing flirtation seemed to have been lifted from some forgotten Cannes indy flick. Of course we know that the film is going to switch back into the standard wands and witchery mode at any moment. The oddly small space of the cafe combined with the ominous rumbling of passing trains makes even this supposedly banal space eerie. Even in the real world Harry cannot escape the fantasy of which he is made.
Nevertheless the presence of this trainside adult exchange in the movie or later when Ron and Harry have a genuinely amusing discussion about the physical attractions of Ginny Weasley ("Well, she's got nice skin." "So you say Dean is dating my sister because of her skin?" "No- it's just-...") is like finding solid oak paneling beneath the flashy wallpaper. This is a real movie, not just a magic show.
Of course my friends will say that comparing my appreciation of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" to my inordinate love of an IHOP waffle breakfast is not quite appropriate. "The last 'Harry Potter' movie really is amazing. Your lack of quality movies beforehand may not be the reason why you liked 'The Half-Blood Prince' so much. It was genuinely great. A better metaphor would be you flipping out over a plate of $200 blowfish sashimi."
Of course this is quite right. But then I managed to get a visually clean copy of "2012" downloaded onto my computer. As I watched this truly uninteresting disaster movie I could not help but be blown away at how visually accomplished the destruction of Los Angelos was. First there was the scene of John Cusack's limo driving over a lacework of massive cracks, then an even more elaborate tapestry of a tiny two-seater plane winding through a composition of foreground, midground and background disasters. All sense of space is expertly manipulated as the plane takes off from the runway and then appears to both climb and plunge at the same time as huge cliffs of rock shoot thousands of feet up in the air faster than the craft can rise. Threads of glittering subway trains weave beautifully around the airplane and mirrored buildings crash almost silently into each other. The various skyscraper floors, multi-storie highways and marvels of construction that make up cities in the 21st century become meticulously-arranged mobile sculptural pieces moving around the airborne viewers as Roland Emmerich becomes a cinematic Krishna- a creater of art and a destroyer of worlds- as he brings forth-
"Uh, '2012' really sucked. It was a totally lame disaster movie."
And of course the anonymous blogger was right. "2012" was a terrible movie, far worse than "The Day After Tomorrow"... which at least had a halfway-believable premise for world destruction. "2012" was just a waffle. With no bacon. And barely any butter.