Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince (****)

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Jessie Cave (Lavender Brown), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle at 16), Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (Tom Riddle at 11), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Natalia Tena (Nymphadora Tonks), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Freddie Stroma (Cormac McLaggen), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Amelda Brown (Mrs. Cole), Anna Shaffer (Romilda Vane), Elerica Gallagher (Waitress), Georgina Leonidas (Katie Bell), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Isabella Laughland (Leanne), Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas). Directed by David Yates. Rated PG (scary images, violence, language, sensuality). 153 minutes.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," like "Star Trek" before it, represents this summer's biggest success. Not only is the film itself a masterwork (and boy, is it), but like the film that went as boldly as ever, this one doesn't simply center around amazing visual effects. It deals with matters of the heart, too, and crafts one of the best suspense thrillers in recent years. Shymalan and Hitchcock would be proud of some of the set pieces on display here. The sheer aptitude that clearly-gifted director David Yates uses to film what is probably the hardest PG-rating for any movie ever, or at least since "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" 25 years ago, is something to behold. Also, the film boasts the best cinematography of the year and certainly of the series.

Following the tragic death of his godfather Sirius Black, Harry Potter's summer between fifth and sixth years at Hogwarts is interrupted when Albus Dumbledore snatches him away to the nice village of Budleigh Babberton. Harry's mission: help convince Potions master hopeful Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts. More important are the memories that Slughorn holds of Lord Voldemort, so that Harry and Dumbledore can find Horcruxes--pieces of Voldemort's soul that, if destroyed, will be the end of him. Meanwhile, Harry himself battles another villain: affection, specifically for Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister. And Hermione and Ron have spats in between Ron's snogging with Lavender Brown.

There are two scenes in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in which Hermione and Ron call Harry their best friend. It's this kind of connection that makes the film so special, more so than any visuals could. One scene in particular has Hermione pouring her heart out to Harry after Ron and Lav-Lav kiss for the first time. It's heart-wrenching and heart-warming in equal measure, because we know the friendship between them and Ron is as strong as any in the film medium. The hormones that are prevalent at the age of 16 are fierce and brutal (heck, they still are for me, four years later), and the film presents them in an uncompromising way. Luckily, there's hope yet. The last five minutes in particular are an exquisite capper on a trio of friendship that will most assuredly last a lifetime.

But it wouldn't be "Harry Potter" with the usual dazzle of special effects, and they are as accomplished as ever. The first scene has a thrilling and terrifying attack by Death Eaters on the helpless Muggles. The war has started. No one's safe. The effects used here are flawless, as are those in an equally scary attack on the Burrow (the Weasleys' house). The blurry, surreal murkiness of the transition into the crucial memory sequences couldn't be more perfect. The final sequence in a dank and dark cave is almost too realistic, with the disgusting inferi and the subsequent ring of fire Dumbledore conjures to ward them off indistinguishable from the actual-real surroundings.

The other tech credits are seamless. The musical score by Nicholas Hooper is essential to setting the mood for every scene and it does that beautifully, especially in the most tense of moments. The aforementioned cinematography by the great Bruno Delbonnel is sumptuous and utterly gorgeous, shrouding everything in a surreal light that matches the goings-on in the plot. Things at Hogwarts are not the same as they once were, and at the end, the situation is even more grave. The cinematography reflects that beautifully, especially in the emotion-driven ending. That Delbonnel has signed on to the two-part "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" gives me hope that they will be absolutely terrific-looking unlike anything else.

The actors are more than impressive. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint by now know these roles and could play them in their sleep, but luckily they don't. These are strong, committed performances by consummate professionals, not young-adult actors anymore, and the scenes of teenage hormones are beautifully played-out by all involved (also of note are equally strong takes from Bonnie Wright as Ginny and newcomer Jessie Cave as groupie Lavender Brown). Other actors of the generation include Tom Felton, as evil and conniving as ever as Draco Malfoy, with a new mission from the Dark Lord himself, and Evanna Lynch, as quirky and wise as ever in the now-historic role of Luna Lovegood (one of my personal favorite characters in the series).

But as good as the "kids" are, the adults are even better. Deserving of an Oscar nomination (and possible win) is Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. It's amazing to think that at one time I was unsure of his transition into the character, especially after the regal Richard Harris played the headmaster in the first two films. Now, though, I can't imagine anyone else playing this role better than Gambon, whose Dumbledore is a man willing to take whatever comes his way. As the wisest and most powerful wizard, it's something to behold when he becomes vulnerable in the last act; Gambon is shattering and unforgettable, a force of nature in what reminds me of Billy Crudup's devastating turn as Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen." Alan Rickman is superbly icy in another of the year's great turns thus far. His Snape hasn't had much to do since the first film, only playing Snape in extended cameos. Snape doesn't even try to cover up his true colors by the end, and Rickman gives the character an extra layer that is unforeseen and a bit of foreshadowing for the final film in the series. And the great Jim Broadbent (one of my favorite actors ever since "The Borrowers" twelve years ago) is, well, great as Horace Slughorn, quirky and only a little conceited but with a smidge of something else when he talks about students he loved.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," as corny as it may sound, is ultimately about the power of a friendship among three people that comes around once in a blue moon. It's why the final sequence, implying a dangerous and frightening journey that they may not survive, is so beautiful. Ron and Hermione pledge their complete devotion to Harry's task as their own. The school is lost, the world is darkened by a pall of dread and gloom, but their friendship will last an entire lifetime, no matter what happens. And we all relate to it, because we all have at least one friend who is comparable (I know I do). The razzle-dazzle of special effects, the beauty of the cinematography, the pathos of the actors' performance--none of it would matter if the film didn't have that heart-wrenching element of truth and gravitas. This is one of the year's finest achievements.

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