Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Magical Series Nears Its Finish

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I think Harry Potter himself put it best when he said, "I never realized how beautiful this place was." In talking about Hogwarts, he couldn't be any more right. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" brings the enchanting school of wizardry to life like never before and makes it an altogether awe-inspiring spectacle to behold. From a wand duel in a bathroom to a thrilling match of Quidditch, it all looks better than ever. And it's in no small part thanks to the introduction of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel whose other work includes "Amélie" and "Across the Universe." With this Potter newcomer in the mix, the scenery is filled with dazzling set pieces and wondrous art direction that makes the world of Hogwarts feel like something fresh and exciting all over again. This latest installment in the beloved and wildly popular franchise is the most gorgeous yet, and not only that, it is arguably the best yet, the strongest since Cuarón's "Prisoner of Azkaban." Director David Yates returns for his second outing assisted this time by screenwriter Steve Kloves who wrote all of the other films aside from "Order of the Phoenix," the other of which Yates directed. Now that they've been brought together, they make the perfect marriage and bring to life J.K. Rowling's masterful seven-book saga the way it was truly meant to be.

We last left off with the acknowledgment that the Dark Lord is indeed back in power, and this entry solemnly picks up right from there. The Death Eaters are ravaging the Muggles and making their way closer into the corridors of Hogwarts where they can cause their most destruction. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been stamped with the seal of evil and gets assigned to carry out an awful deed, and he is followed by fellow Death Eaters such as the maniacal vixen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). And it would appear that Severus Snape (the always excellent Alan Rickman) has Draco's back, but he shows over and over again the complex moral puzzle that he weaves. And he's still smacking students and enunciating each of his words individually with a sneer.

Meanwhile, headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has recruited Harry to remain by his side and before heading back to Hogwarts for a sixth year, he takes him to visit an old friend. It's a man by the name of Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who is a retired Potions professor that Dumbledore needs back to find out more information on a former star pupil, Tom Riddle, now commonly known as Lord Voldemort. The key to Harry's quest lies within a very important memory of Slughorn's, and a great deal of the movie focuses on the task of obtaining this memory. This loopy and absent-minded professor is a funny, charming, and welcome addition to the wide cast of characters. Certain familiar faces fall in and out of importance with each installment, but we're always given the obligatory viewing, so Hagrid, Wormtail, Filch, Lupin, Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, the Weasleys, the ever so lovely Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, and many more all make their appearances.

There are two storylines to follow, one of which is the tale of tackling teenage love. Ron (Rupert Grint) finds himself enraptured with the bouncy Lavendar Brown (Jessie Cave), and their "snogging" causes poor Hermoine (Emma Watson) to excuse herself to go vomit. Then there's Ginny (Bonnie Wright), Ron's little sister who is not so little anymore and is capturing the attention of Harry. The romantic foundations are being set, and they play out in a humorously cheeky fashion as if battling one's own raging hormones is as daunting a task as the actually life-threatening task that faces Harry. And that's the second storyline as the personal connection between Dumbledore and Harry continues to deepen and mature. They embark on a journey together to find what is introduced to viewers as horcruxes, seven artifacts that have pieces of Voldemort's soul residing within them. In the movie's most emotionally potent scene, the duo travel to an eerie lake where terrifying creatures of the undead lurk beneath the water's surface.

Through the intermingling of these two storylines, the movie strikes an ideal balance between the whimsical and the dark. It's much less fanciful this time out, even more so than the fifth installment. This could very well be a deliberate move on Yates' part due to the increasingly heightened sense of human drama that his characters are being placed amongst. This time they face truly dangerous situations where the horror is real. When a moment of devastating tragedy arrives, it has an astounding effect, which goes to certify the spell that the movie has been casting all along. By the end of this chapter, we honestly care about the well-being of these characters we've come to know so well.

"Half-Blood Prince" is extraordinarily well-made, a rush of moviemaking bliss, and I loved it. The ever-approaching battle of good versus evil is accompanied by a very well-equipped director for the job. David Yates has put special emphasis on the gathering storm clouds that are on the approach, and he has claimed the Harry Potter universe as his own superbly setting up the highly-awaited finale, "The Deathly Hallows," which he will also direct. It has been split into two parts scheduled for release in 2010 and 2011. Something huge is on the horizon, and "Half-Blood Prince" is yet another excellent step along the way, another momentary pause to anxiously wait for what's in store next.

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