Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As I type this, my wife is counting down the minutes until we catch the final Harry Potter later tonight.  To prepare for the last installment, we re-watched (and I reviewed) the most recent entries in the series, including this film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Sadly, even with me paying close attention, I was unable to find any Prince in this film.
Half-Blood, Half-Funk, and All-Awesome.  And weird.

So, what happens in the sixth Harry Potter film?  Well, after Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) was vindicated at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the wizarding world now accepts that the evil wizard Lord Voldemort is alive and well.  While the good guys are presumably hunting down the baddies, Harry and his friends return to Hogwarts school for another year that will inevitably feature Lord Voldemort trying to kill Harry, once again.  Or...maybe not...?  This time around, it seems that LoVo (as the tabloids call him, probably) has given Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) an important task; Draco has always been Potter's schoolmate nemesis, but this is the first time he is actually given the opportunity to be EEE-veel.
You can't wash off jerk, Draco
While Draco attempts to perform his nastiness (that somehow involves a cabinet), Harry is busy helping Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) learn about Lord Voldemort.  You see, LoVo is a powerful dark wizard, but even he should have died at least a few times already in this film series; it is up to Harry to gather the secret to LoVo's resilience.  While the two major plots develop, we get the usual look at magical school life, only this time with some teenage romances. 
Snogging: apparently British slang for sniffing each other

One of the reasons I enjoy The Half-Blood Prince is that it mixes things up a bit.  Instead of waiting a whole movie to see exactly how LoVo is going to attack Harry (and fail...again), both sides take the offensive.  Harry and Dumbledore are searching for knowledge, which will indicate a weakness in LoVo's proverbial armor.   We finally get to see a student do something that isn't good when Draco helps LoVo and his cronies, the Death Eaters.  We even get to see Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) acting as a double-agent for Dumbledore when he pretends to be a Death Eater --- or maybe he's a triple-agent that's pretending to be pretending!  Whatever the case, this is a much needed development for Snape in this series, because he has been the Harry Potter equivalent of Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby-Doo for far too long.
Possibly not a screen-shot

The acting improvements in the series continue in The Half-Blood Prince.  Daniel Radcliffe adds a bit of subtlety to his performance this time around and his "magically lucky" scene performances are pretty amusing, even if he appears to just be really, really high.  Emma Watson continues to be the best young actor in the cast; I thought she did a good job with her romantic subplot.  Rupert Grint continues to be an ugly red head, but he appears to be more than willing to look silly on camera and his comic performances continue to improve here.  He's still not much of a dramatic actor, but that may just be because I hate looking at his face.
L-R: Daniel, Emma, Ugly, Tom, Alan
Tom Felton was pretty good as the nasty Draco, but his ineffective hoodlum role from the earlier movies contrasts sharply with his brooding/sulking in this film; I will admit that the face-stomping he delivers toward the start of the movie is the coolest thing Draco ever did.  Bonnie Wright emerged as Harry's love interest in this movie; she has had small parts in each of the other films, but this was her biggest role to date.  She was pretty decent with the adolescent awkwardness, but even her newly expanded role didn't give her much to do.

The adult cast is its solid self again.  Both Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman's characters get much more screen time in this film than ever before, and each one has a few very nice moments on screen.  The requisite new cast member is Jim Broadbent, who is always a treat to watch.  His character is a little weaselly, but Broadbent does a good job exuding a blend of ego and cowardice.  Helena Bonham Carter returns as the crazed villain, Bellatrix, and she cackles her way through the movie.  Ralph Fiennes, as the evil Lord actually not in this movie at all.  Huh.  I had to double-check his IMDb page to verify that, but it's true.  The rest of the adult cast --- Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Warwick Davis, etc. --- are solid supporting actors, even if they only get a few minutes on camera.
"Give me an L...!"

There's nothing wrong with the look and feel of this movie, either.  David Yates directed another solid movie with excellent pacing, a nice balance of comedy and drama, and a great instinct on what subplots from the novel to not include in the film.  There are a few moments where I wondered why the wizards didn't have a magical work-around in a particular situation, but I generally liked what he did and the performances he got from the cast.
Wizards haven't figured out an umbrella spell yet?

I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of this story, though.  Yes, it has a pretty sweet Empire Strikes Back ending, but it's not enough.  There isn't nearly enough build-up with the mystery of who the Half-Blood Prince was, so when his identity is revealed, there is no pay off.  It felt like the movie hadn't even mentioned the sub-titular character for about an hour when he steps forward and identifies himself; that's nice, buddy, but the movie stopped caring about your code-name a while ago.  The biggest flaw in the story (which caused my wife to hate this movie when we first watched it) involves the use to Draco's evil cabinet.  SPOILER ALERT: Using the cabinet to bring Death Eaters into Hogwarts is a pretty cool idea.  What do they do when they arrive, after two hours of waiting to see what they will do?  They heckle Draco, watch Dumbledore die, and break some dinnerware.  And that's it.  The most bloodthirsty, murdering witches and wizards on the planet have full reign of a school full of frightened children and only a handful of teachers --- most of whom are elderly --- and they leave them all unscathed.  They don't even try to wreck the school.  This is by far the most unnecessary subplot in the Harry Potter series, and the long build-up for it just makes it more frustrating.  I understand that Yates didn't want to include the wizard fights that are featured at the end of this book, since the final movie will have plenty o' wizard fights, but that's still pretty lame.  I was also less than thrilled that we were being subjected to the ridiculously scored wizard sport, quidditch, again.  On the bright side, it played a relatively small part of the film.  I'm still not certain why Ron is the only player I can recall in the series that wears an old-timey football helmet to play.
Ron waits for the short wizard-bus

Even with plot flaws, The Half-Blood Prince is still a pretty entertaining movie.  I think it has some of the best acting in the series, as well as some of the cooler visuals.  I was disappointed by the story, though, which downgrades it from "awesome" to "still pretty good."

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