Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reel Thoughts: Wild About Harry

When a film series reaches its sixth installment, usually the well is running pretty dry (think Halloween or Friday the 13th). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince succeeds beautifully in continuing the series and deepening the characters, relationships and upcoming menace. And the cast is uniformly terrific as it matures before our eyes.

Harry Potter benefits from its strong literary source novels by J.K. Rowling, but that by no means makes filming her works a piece of cake. Call it Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones, since this is the first time we see the kids really grappling with their sexuality. Being more of a casual observer of the films, and never having read the novels, I wondered where Harry’s love interest from the previous film went, and why he suddenly had the hots for Ron Weasley’s ginger-haired sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

I only point that out as a way of saying that for the first time, you can’t watch the new film without being familiar with the series. As wonderful and entertaining as Half-Blood Prince is, its best moments come in seeing new sides and levels to characters we’ve grown to love over the past years. Evanna Lynch steals her scenes as the ethereally kooky Lana Lovegood, and Sir Michael Gambon is the best he’s been as the embattled Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore.

As Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) return for their sixth year at Hogwarts, the work of the Dark Lord Voldemort grows so brazen that even muggles (non-wizards) are getting killed in mass numbers. Everyone knows that Harry is the “Chosen One,” and he’s as beloved in the wizardly world as Radcliffe is in real life.

In this, the sixth of seven books, Dumbledore has a vital mission that involves bringing back an old professor (James Broadbent) who knew Voldermort when he was a student. Broadbent is wonderfully duplicitous, coming across as dithering yet manipulative, and the central mystery of Half-Blood Prince concerns what he knew and how he helped Tom Riddle become the Dark Lord, who murdered Harry’s parents. The title refers to a mysterious inscription Harry finds in a book of potions he is lent to attend Broadbent’s potions class. In addition, the book is full of “the Half-Blood Prince’s” notes that fix errors in the text, and make Harry seem like a star pupil.

Like The Empire Strikes Back, Half-Blood Prince revels in being an open-ended and darker entry in the series. It packs a huge dramatic event that you probably already know. Director David Yates creates a sense of menace and suspense and leaves you anxiously awaiting the two-part Deathly Hallows that closes out the saga in November 2010 and summer 2011. I can’t say if the film does justice to the novel, but it certainly is a shining addition to the Harry Potter film chronicles.

UPDATE: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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