Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Half-Blood Prince' is fun, satisfying Harry Potter installment

By Steve Crum

Evil forces are rampant at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. So are hormones. In this installment, the sixth of eight based on the wildly popular Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, dark spirits boldly surface within and far away from the wizard school Hogwarts. yet with all the death and near death plot ingredients of Half-Blood Prince, Harry and his friends are diverted by matters of adolescence, aka dating, with all its pretentiousness, heartaches, flirts, and smooches. What a curiously effective mix for a Potter flick.

Effective it is. Half-Blood Prince is the best produced, and most entertaining Harry Potter escapade of the past three or four. I won’t say it is superior to the first two of the series, which are my favorites due to their fun atmosphere and lack of the grimness that followed, but Half-Blood is a near perfect delight. David Gates, who directed the last Potter (HP and the Order of the Phoenix) and will helm the next and final two (HP and the Deathly Hallows, Pts. 1 & 2), has obviously honed his skills here. Steve Kloves’ screenplay has verve and balance when it comes to the seesaw of light comedy and horror plot elements. He is also reputedly loyal to Rowling’s novel, as he was in the last three he adapted. Since I have not read the Potter novels, I rely on hearsay in this regard.

The acting is a showcase unto itself. Daniel Radcliffe’s Potter is more credible than ever, with Radcliffe stretching his acting chops beyond trademark looks of bewilderment. He has seriously worked to improve his acting over the years, and it shows. The same praise can be said for his two on-screen pals, Emma Watson (as Hermione Granger) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). They have become the nucleus of a great stock company of Potter players. 

Those players also include an adult cast that, for the most part, have been with the Potter franchise since day one, among them: Michael Gambon (who has successfully replaced the late Richard Harris) as 150 years-old Professor Albus Dumbledore, more than ever a central figure in Half-Blood Prince; Maggie Smith’s Prof. Minverva McGonahall; Dave Legeno’s white-haired Fenrir Greyback; Robbie Coltrane’s comic relief Rubeus Hagrid; and Alan Rickman’s Prof. Severus Snape. There is also the evil witchery of Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, and Ralph Fiennes’ son Hero Fiennes Tiffin as the nasty Tom Riddle at age 11.
Outside of Half-Blood’s focus on Dumbledore, scene stealing is accomplished by Jim Broadbent’s textured performance as returning wizard and Prof. Horace (Magic Potions) Slughorn.

The inherent weakness of any film series dependent on an episodic, continuing story line is that (1) the viewer must have seen--and can recall--the plots and characters from previous films over the last several years; and (2) not all conflicts will be resolved in this or any one episode, but might persist until the next film or films. That does not seem to matter to loyal Potter fans any more than it did to Star Wars fans who held their collective breaths for several years until the finale. Again, there are two more installments after Half-Blood Prince, supposedly in 2010 and 2011, so hold that oxygen.

That certainly said, and without divulging too much, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens with Death Eaters raising havoc around and through Hogwarts. This is an very real omen of things to come via the ultimate confrontation between Potter and Dumbledore versus the Voldemort force(s) responsible for killing Harry’s parents. [A pause and reminder that it is assumed anyone reading this has seen the previous Potter movies.]

At the outset, Harry accompanies his mentor Dumbledore to the home of retired Potions Prof. Slughorn (Broadbent). It is an inspired sequence, Slughorn’s home has been ransacked by Death Eaters, and the affable Slughorn is hiding in unique disguise within.   There are various other entanglements as well, some involving potion-spiked chocolates. All this mostly funny teen angst plays out through the story.
Still, there are some eerie, edge of the seat set pieces that thrill. A particularly effective sequence features Potter and Dumbledore on a quest within a water filled cavern. It is a stunner.

Quiddich, the airborne version of soccer essential to playtime competition between the various fraternal houses at Hogwarts, makes a fantastic return in Half-Blood Prince. Basically, a full game is played, the first time since episode two. (Yes, there was a brief Quiddich match in #4.) Except this time, due to the advanced age and size of its participants (Weasley), larger and more streamlined broomsticks are used.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of eight parts of a film phenomenon of our time. Like the Star Wars series, the financial and social impact of the Potter series translates to motion picture history and, eventually, legend. Savor this satisfying episode of its ongoing broomstick ride.
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GRADE on an A to F scale: A-
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