Thursday, November 18, 2010

Potter-Watch (34 of 77) Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Can't we just forget that the last film ever happened, and get back to the series that we loved? Fortunately enough, David Yates must have been asking that same question, because Half-Blood Prince does a good job of burying the past. As a matter of fact, this is arguably the best film in the series so far, a title which it may very well lose tomorrow. While the film may not have very much in the way of visceral thrills, it has the benefit of being the most superbly executed of all the films. The perfection of this film could be attributed to the combination of director David Yates, who had the misfortune of directing the previous film, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who skipped out on writing Order of the Phoenix.

The story for the sixth episode may be a little low-key, but there isn't a scene in this film that I didn't enjoy. It's mostly an ensemble effort, both in terms of cast and plot. We don't only see things from Harry's perspective, but we also get an idea of the wider scheme of things. Right out of the gate, we get a fast paced action scene where the Death Eaters kidnap Ollivander and break down a muggle bridge. From there we see side plots involving Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape, giving us a better idea of the opposition. Where last film spent some time fleshing out Snape, this film spends a good deal of time fleshing out Draco.

I do understand why some people have panned the film, mostly on account of the abundance of teen romance in the film. I'd be on their side as well if the romance wasn't handled so brilliantly and realistically. Instead of the geeky flirting of the fourth film, there are genuine feelings being developed in this film. These aren't just one time flings that will go nowhere like Cho Chang and Victor Krum. This is the same thing that thwarted Voldemort in the first place: true love. So we spend a great deal of time in this film putting that together, and it comes off as really sweet, occasionally melancholy, but almost constantly funny.

With everything happening here, it's almost easy to forget the main plot of the episode, which consists of Dumbledore "educating" Harry on the ultimate task at hand: defeating Voldemort. It's definitely watered down from the book, but were not going to focus on what's not here. The memories we see offer all we need to know to understand the story, and that's what matters. As we get closer to the end of the film, it becomes more apparent that we're seeing the last living moments of Albus Dumbledore. The friendship between him and Harry transcends a simple teacher-student relationship, and begins to evoke equals. The last fifty minutes of the film go off like clockwork, with each event leading to another in rapid succession.

This film achieves the amazing task of a believable tone that consists of both the darkest and lightest moments in the series. There are points in this film that are really frightening, morose, or just plain tragic. Then we cut almost immediately to something hilariously light spirited and energetic, and it never once feels outrageous or out of nowhere. For example, there's a point halfway through the film where Ron is under the influence of a love potion, and that's pure comedy, and the next thing we know, he's on the ground, convulsing from poisoned mead. It takes us at our most vulnerable, and it shocks us with throwing danger at our characters when they aren't suspecting it.

Two of the series' actors truly come into their own this time, starting with Emma Watson. She gets a fair bit to chew on this year, and while her side-plot in this film is mostly reserved to her complex relationship with Ron, she really sells us the sweet desire and sour pinch of her situation. Her scenes with Daniel Radcliffe are a subtle highlight of the film, as they are such similar characters who remain simple friends, free of those pesky hormones. The other young actor who has shown improvement here is Tom Feltons performance as Draco Malfoy, who is now just a shadow of his former self. He no longer spends his time mocking Harry in public, but instead devotes his days to the mission Voldemort has assigned him, and he isn't quite up to the challenge. Five years ago, we would've payed money to punch him in the face. Now, we actually feel sorry for him.

Amazing as their performances are, the crown of best actor in this film belongs to two members of the adult cast. The most obvious is newcomer Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, whose character mixes all the best parts of this movie. He's such a quirky character that makes you laugh on so many occasions, but he's also got a tragic past involving Tom Riddle. He'd have this honer all to himself if it weren't for Michael Gambon's performance as Dumbledore. Rarely am I talking about a performance this deep into the series, but Gambon really gives it his all given his restricted time table for the rest of the series. I don't think anybody knew how amazing this character could be until now.

The visuals in this film are perhaps my favorite in any film of the past two years. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonel puts so much texture into these shots that they're practically moving paintings, like the ones that adorn the school's corridors. Nicholas Hooper's score is a lot better than his last, as it actually knows when to go dark and when not to. It'd still lacking anything memorable, and doesn't go above and beyond in the way John Williams and Patrick Doyle did. I'd be a little more torn up about him not returning for the final films if Alexandre Desplat weren't the one replacing him. The visual effects don't rule this film, but they offer some nice visual stimuli. Finally, the editing in this film is just brilliant, so congrats to Mark Day on that one.

Ultimately, this film is just a set up for the final installment, putting everything where it needs to be for the next films, but one of the greatest ever made. The more I revisit this film, the more it occurs to me that this is my favorite film in the series. This is a talking movie, much like The Social Network is a talking film, and we get quite a few memorable quotes in this film, and some intense conversations as well. Is it long? Yes. Does it sag a bit in the midsection? Yes, but the same could be said of a dozen Oscar calibur films. However, this is the rare fantasy film that feels absolutely real, thoroughly enjoyable, and artistically stellar. We may not get much of the titular Half-Blood Prince, but how much of the Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix did we see in their films? Not that much at all. This is a film made up of some real moments; things that occur in both our world and the wizarding world. That's one of the things I love about the latest films in this series.


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