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Summertime Rolls: Harry Potter and (500) Days of Summer

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Ah, romance. The last two movies I have seen in the theaters this summer have dealt with eternal quest for smoochies and then some either directly (500 Days) or indirectly (Potter). But make no mistake- late July is a time for lovers, at least in the theaters.  The special effects extravaganzas have pretty much blown their wads by this point, and now we try to find “the sleepers”- the great movies that no one saw coming when anticipating the biggies of the summer. You know what?  I might have found one.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is not that sleeper, but it isn’t quite the typical summer movie, either. Yes, it has some of the best special effects in any movie you’ll see this year, but they are so low-key that they don’t really draw all that much attention to themselves. Compare a giant Transformer climbing up the Great Pyramids to a magic spell that simply cleans up a room and you’ll get the idea.

But I sort of liked the idea that the effects weren’t designed to blow my mind at every turn. I get exhausted by some of these massive action/explosion movies nowadays, and for every one that works (Star Trek, for instance) there are a bunch of Transformers or Terminators that just suck dick (disclosure:  I haven’t seen Transformers 2, but it does suck, right?).

So it was kind of nice to see millions of dollars being spent on a scene of Harry and Dumbledore standing on a big rock in the middle of the ocean. The movie looks great- take almost any still from it and you’ve got yourself a nice wall ornament. And the movie itself was fine- but that’s about as far as it goes for me.

I have thought every Harry Potter movie has been OK, but no more.  I have no idea why The Prisoner of Azkaban is considered the best of the movies, or why the fans hate the first two, the ones directed by Christopher Columbus.  Honestly, I can barely differentiate any of them.  They all play, at least on film, as no more than a series of events that hardly have anything to do with one another.

Take Half-Blood Prince.  I won’t say much, but some of the 2 1/2 hour running time is spent trying to figure out the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, of whom Harry has inherited a potion textbook. Believe me when I say that this sub-plot, which is also the TITLE OF THE MOVIE, really has nothing to do with the main plot.  Yes, you do find out who the Half-Blood Prince is, and yes, it is a major player in the movie, but actually knowing who he is and why he took all those copious notes in Harry’s book?  Doesn’t matter much.

The main plot is concerned with trying to get into Voldemort’s head a bit by examining his past. Dumbledore, you see, has this birdbath into which you can drip spooge-like memories that he has in vials. Once the viscuous, ropy drips of memories have been dropped into the birdbath, they coagulate into memories, allowing Harry to dip his face into the water and see how things went down.

So we see in these spooge visions a little kid version of Voldemort plotting to separate his soul into bits and hiding them in various places, which if I remember from the books (yes, I’ve read them all and think they were all great), sets up the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Intercut with all this are many scenes of the Harry Potter gang wanting to fuck one another. They really hit you over the head with the fact that they all now have pubes and just want to bone down. Ron, especially, has no other role in this than to be in lust or the object of lust.  Oh, he plays some Quidditch.  Forgot.

Like I said, the movie is fine.  I actually understood why the books were a phenomenon, as they created a universe that seemed both familiar and new at the same time.  But the movies?  They just seem a bit half-assed to me, even with the note-perfect performances of actors like Alan Rickman (Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix).  I have come to accept that the movies may just not be for me; I recognize I am in the minority, as most people absolutely love this movie.  I guess if you like the movies, this is one of the better ones.

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Now- (500) Days of Summer.   I should have hated this movie.  It really has that Juno or Garden State vibe about it, and those are two movies I hated.  Both of them were so fucking precious, from Juno‘s hipster Diablo Cody dialogue that is the essence of smug, to Garden State‘s thrusting The Shins down our throats in that awful scene where Natalie Portman insists the song “New Slang” will “change your life.”

I do rebel against quirky for quirky’s sake, and Summer looked like it could be more of the same.  You have the non-linear method of storytelling, jumping around to different days in the main character’s relationship with his girlie. You have the self-conscious references to hipster bands- The Smiths, The Pixies, and Belle and Sebastian are all name-checked.  All the cliches of a typical rom-com are presented and accounted for- the obnoxious best friend, the precocious little sister who is foul-mouthed and wise beyond her years, and the romanticized version of the big city (LA does look nice in this movie).

But you know what?  Everything worked in this movie, and I’m still trying to figure out how it got beyond all my defenses. Maybe its because I like The Smiths, The Pixies, and Belle and Sebastian.  Maybe I like the version of LA that they showed here.  But more than that, I just think that the dialogue was really, really good, and they got two actors to sell it.

Joseph Gordon Leavitt continues his big-screen winning streak here, earning the movie’s MVP.  In this, he plays “the normal guy,” which is some of the hardest acting you can do. I’m sure it was easier for him to play a sexually abused little-leaguer (Mysterious Skin), a brain damaged bank robber (The Lookout), or modern day film noir character (Brick) than it was to play Tom Hansen, writer of greeting cards and sufferer of unrequited love.  Leavitt was great in all the movies I mentioned (especially Mysterious Skin), but this may be his best role.  It is certainly his most likeable- he is equally charming, lovelorn, and funny (watch for his Hall & Oates-themed post-fuck strut) throughout.  But more than that, he is believable in this.  Don’t underestimate that.

Zoe Deschanel is good, too.  She has the tricky role of being ultra-desirable while at the same time being unreachable.  But you have to believe that Tom could fall head over heels in love with her while at the same time understand why he can’t have her, while at the same time not hating her when she ditches him.  Again, not easy to achieve.

(500) Days of Summer is one of the best movies this summer- it actually reminded me of Adventureland, which came out in the spring. Both are under-the-radar, low-key movies that hit every single bulls-eye they aim for.  Seek these out, especially if Harry Potter is sold out. You won’t regret it.

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