Opening in theatres this week, the latest film from J.K. Rowling‘s insanely popular franchise comes to life with Daniel Radcliffe starring once more in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Also opening in select theatres is one of this year’s most critically acclaimed dramas, director Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Over the last twelve years the world has been following the adventures of a young boy as he battled against the dark power of one evil wizard and his minions. With each passing year, and each new book, the franchise grew and grew, turning it’s creator into a revered figure among her many, many fans.
Leaping onto the big screen nearly eight years ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone introduced us to a young cast that has literally grown up before our eyes. J.K. Rowling’s books have turned into a massive franchise today, and one that is almost hard to pin down, considering the numerous talents who have been involved in bringing it to life.
This is the backdrop for what must be one of the biggest films of the summer, if not the entire year.
The truth is though, that with the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, starring Daniel Radcliffe once more as Harry Potter, it is hard to overlook the fact that we have watched these characters, and the actors, grow up, which is something director David Yates takes keen advantage of this time around.
Picking up directly where Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix left off, the latest film starts with a shell-shocked Harry standing in the devastated Ministry of Magic after the battle with Voldemort ended and key members of the wizarding world witnessed the Dark Lord in all his glory. Standing in front of the wizardly press as they snap photos and yelled questions, we see Harry pulled away by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, played once more by Michael Gambon.
This dark, and yet quiet moment opens the latest film appropriately enough, offering one of the more sombre notes that will of course book-end this otherwise comical drama. Throughout the rest of the film we see Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, played again by Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, dealing with school, and maybe more importantly, their feelings.
As Hermione hopes for something more with Ron, who is himself sidetracked into a relationship with the bizarre Lavender Brown, played wonderfully by Jessie Cave, Harry is slowly realizing how much he cares for Ron’s sister, Ginny Weasley, played by Bonnie Wright. Harry is also at the head of his potions class, thanks to a mysterious but seemingly tainted text book, which is marked by the unknown “Half-Blood Prince”.
Meanwhile, Hogwarts is under lock and key as the wizarding world feels the wrath of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Safe behind the walls of the school, Harry finds that he has a new task before him as Dumbledore starts revealing the true nature of the Dark Lord and his history at Hogwarts. This involves befriending the potions master, Horace Slughorn, played brilliantly and comedically by Jim Broadbent, a former teacher at Hogwarts who may be able to reveal an important secret about Voldemort.
With the opening scene positively giving me chills, which were carried through the film, even as I laughed at many of the film’s more jovial scenes, I can’t help but praise Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as the best film in the franchise to date. That comes with some serious qualifiers, but I think it’s still an unequivocal fact.
On the bright side of things, I cannot praise the film’s casting and all of their performances enough. The entire cast does deserve high praise, as Radcliffe, Grint, Watson, Gambon, and all of the supporting cast worked their usual magic once again.
But, there are three particular performances that stand out. Jim Broadbent is simply wonderful, and entertaining as Slughorn, but I also can’t say enough about Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, and Tom Felton as Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy. This trio of actors deserve the highest praise for their work because they simply found wonderful layers within their characters, which brings a lot of feeling into each of their scenes.
The key to this new film though seems to be the sheer realism of the emotions, which makes you feel like you have walked in on a few months of these character’s lives. That is a tough thing to accomplish in this world of magic, especially after most of the other films were almost farcical, but Yates has found a way to push magic practically to the side of the more important story, which is really about the characters, their choices, and their troubles.
The unfortunate downfall of the film comes with several omissions and within the final chapter of the Half-Blood Prince, where most of you probably already know that things fall apart at Hogwarts. While I praise Yates for wringing a lot of heart and wit out of the story, he and the screenwriters cut some serious elements that contribute largely to the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry, and a few omissions, as a friend reminded me, also could paint Voldemort as a simple, empty villain.
Worst of all though, the film stumbles at the end, and ruins what I can only call one of the most important scenes in the series. A key battle, which also raised the stakes in the book, has also been left out. These omissions and missteps cost the film dearly, at least in my mind, despite all of the film’s successes.
At two hours and thirty minutes the film is long, but I felt a few more minutes would have helped if it could have brought more of the important elements to the screen. I also can’t shake the feeling that this scene was an important test of Yates and the screenwriters, who will next need to bring a lot of equally emotional moments to life in the final two films for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which are due out in November of 2010, and July of 2011.
The Half-Blood Prince is still a marvellous film, and brings the heft of the book’s pages to life. The omissions, and missteps, are all-too noticeable, but that doesn’t change that this is a must-see for all Potter fans. Less ardent observers may not be as forgiving, however.
The Hurt Locker
Good films are not hard to come by. In fact, they’re more common than I think most people realize. Certainly more common than most critics seem to let on. On the other hand, great movies are a very rare creature indeed. In any given year it is something of a battle to find more than ten mind blowing cinematic experiences, but by all accounts, The Hurt Locker is easily going to make it onto this year’s list.
In this dramatic thriller from director Kathryn Bigelow, the story goes behind the scenes on the streets of Baghdad where a team of three technicians works day by day at disarming bombs and explosives. Known as the Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad, the team is both surprised and nervous when the unflinching, but seemingly reckless Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, takes over for their recently deceased leader.
The job calls for strict protocol, and even stricter safety measures, but their new leader seems to have a style all his own and despite his miraculous record, they’re all afraid that it’s going to get them killed before their tour of duty ends in a mere 38 days.
Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty co-star in The Hurt Locker as William’s teammates, both of whom fear the worst, but seem incapable of escaping their new leader’s orbit. The film also features cameos by Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, and Guy Pearce.
It also seems a disservice not to mention cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who previously worked his magic in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, not to mention film editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski. With director Bigelow and the rest of the amazing cast and crew, this team has created one of the most critically acclaimed and visceral films of the summer, which promises to be one of the best dramas of the year.
Praise has been heaped on the film following its debut at multiple film festivals, and although there were numerous reviews to quote I think Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said it best: “A first-rate action thriller, a vivid evocation of urban warfare in Iraq, a penetrating study of heroism and a showcase for austere technique, terse writing and a trio of brilliant performances.”