*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent
screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw It's easily worse than Mike Newell's go at The Goblet of Fire, and it's satisfying to note that it fails for many of the same reasons. For all the gorgeously-decayed gothic architecture, the German Expressionism, the bleached colour palette, etc., Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (hereafter Harry Potter 6) isn't the moody requiem before the bloody mass of parts 7 and 7a in the next couple of years, but instead this ungainly tween romcom with a sudden horde of amphibious zombies (not unlike the aquatic sequence in Harry Potter 4), inexplicable cameos from Ursa, Non, and Zod, and silly broomstick rugby. Dark undercurrents? No question. But they're allowed to wither as the film focuses its attention on three non-professional actors doing their best to transform ridiculous, sweet-sixteen romantic imbroglios into Chekhov and Shakespeare, with the combined might of what seems the entire pantheon of great modern British movie actors milling around behind them. The problem isn't that the film is character driven; the problem is that the characters' problems are insipid. Gone is the intense, sticky, stunningly emotional father issues tackled by Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban--the first real hint that this series could become the grown-up artifact the books never quite will given their much-publicized "meh" denouement. Gone is the continuation of that unsolvable Oedipal complexity that arose when the father figures were revealed as less than godlike in Yates's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the best film of the series by a nose--and one of the best American films of that year). In their place is a lot of insufferable slapstick carried off by actors no one would assume capable of screwball in environments better suited to Hammer. horrors: it's "Abbott & Costello Meet the Dementors."
Consider the character of jilted lover Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), who's not only positioned as an object to be condescended to and mocked, but also declared a "bimbo" by heroic tart Hermione (Emma Watson). She's the punchline of at least three mean-spirited gags, the fourth being that she's smitten with rubbery lunkhead idiot Ron (Rupert Grint) to the point of nymphomania. When something dark and bad finally does happen (like when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) almost succeeds, without consequence, in murdering Aryan archenemy Draco (Tom Felton)), the film scampers back to the teeny love quadrangle at its centre as if afraid of its own shadow. Or how 'bout the extended sequence that sees the increasingly insufferable Grint paste on the goofy face and stagger around in the throes of an ill-aimed (and by whom? Some other tart who appears and disappears in approximately 1/2400th of this distended behemoth's running time) love potion when all around there are more interesting things to see and more troubling issues to be dealt with. As with Harry Potter 4, in other words, Harry Potter 6 takes a breather from the stuff that's actually interesting to focus on the stuff that'll be interesting to a very tiny window of its audience for exactly the amount of time it takes the film to put them to sleep.
There's Quidditch in this one, but it mainly consists of Ron--emboldened by the belief that the feather in his nose can make him fly in one of fabledom's oldest morals--blocking balls with his face (sometimes the jokes just write themselves). Once introduced, there's nothing further about how confidence is a mysterious thing, subject to suggestion and placebos. Harry Potter 6 isn't about that. Harry Potter 6 isn't about anything. After a full two hours of little girls with sad birds flying around their head and adolescent boys and girls exchanging furtive, naïve glances over endless dinner parties and embarrassing dances (at last, a Potter movie with two comical vomit sequences!), the film decides to introduce someone bleeding out, someone almost drowning, lots of someones introduced for two-minute cameos and cheap shots at their expense, and in the film's lone interesting sequence, Harry force-feeding mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) a gallon of poison. Undeniably powerful stuff, that image--if only it meant something.
Rather, Harry Potter 6 contents itself with looking. It looks at its sets, it has its characters look at its sets. A key melancholic moment has Harry looking at a painting while, for the bulk of the picture, there's a running gag of looking at a mantle of photos. There's a lot of looking through a looking glass at pictures of memories, and because they've shit away too much time having Radcliffe's Harry mumble things to love interest Ginnie (Bonnie Wright), they have new professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) hand Harry the equivalent of a magic VHS tape in lieu of delivering a monologue. I got a chill of anticipation when, as the movie began, an expressionistic montage dissolved into Paparazzi flashbulbs, suggesting that it might engage the question of fame as Harry crumbles beneath the weight of expectation--not unlike the series itself as it hurtles towards its conclusion. But then no one thinks to look at Harry for the rest of the picture, too busy are they looking at a phoenix flapping on the wing, or a vista of imaginary landscapes over which Harry proclaims as criticism and epitaph: "I never noticed how beautiful it is here." Explanation here in part of why Harry Potter 6 seems so inert. The characters are in a shoebox panorama and they know it. Yates is too interested in shapes behind a diaphanous curtain to notice that his film has picked out the most mundane parts of the Potter mythos to put on the proscenium. Not dealing with its rich vein of race/class issues, not dealing with Harry's Oedipal deeps, not even dealing with the eating away of innocence by experience, Harry Potter 6 deals with how much it hurts when the one you want snogs another.
To recap, Harry is the Chosen One, destined to fight for the fate of the world against the evil (and unseen in this instalment) Voldemort, plucky sidekicks Ron and Hermione by his side. Set in a school for wizardry, it features a lot of teachers played by fifty years of the Royal Shakespeare Company, asked to do nothing in Harry Potter 6 or, at least, nothing more than demonstrate, as if demonstration were necessary, that Rupert Grint should not be playing a scene against Jim Broadbent without a few more million dollars' worth of special effects-driven misdirection. I wish I could say it felt like it was all leading to some grand, satisfying finale, but I know how the series ends already and it's a lot more like something out of Jane Austen (everyone gets married and has babies) than the biblical finish for which we'd prepared. It's ultimately just Charlotte's Web with the spider surviving, isn't it? The line of the movie, Gambon's Dumbledore, upon witnessing the umpteenth mortifying sequence engineered to humiliate a stupid little girl for her stupid little crush on a stupid little boy, deadpans how he misses the "sweet sting of love." By his delivery, this veteran of another Potter (that would be Dennis) reveals in high Dennis Potter post-modern sardonicism exactly what he thinks--and what you should, too--of this unfortunate bit of infantile juvenilia. Originally published: July 15, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a typically stacked two-disc set, the first disc containing the film and a Daniel Radcliffe-hosted Maximum Movie Mode I'm not equipped to view (the price of being an early adopter), the second a rash of HD bonus features mostly tailored to the squeeing Harry Potter fan. Divided into three sections, Disc 2's content begins with Behind the Story, an umbrella heading for the multi-part "Close-up with the Cast of Harry Potter" (29 mins. in toto) and "One-Minute Drills" (7 mins.), wherein "every" cast member is asked to give a précis of his/her alter ego, allegedly with a 60-second deadline looming. The former breaks down into nine segments on the craft of filmmaking--through the prism of this franchise, natch--hosted by the young principals, including top-billed Radcliffe (who looks at editing), Rupert Grint (who looks at "stunts," i.e., wirework), and Emma Watson (who looks good in a tight sweater). Actors Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas) make for mildly amusing hosts in transitional sequences in which they delight in teasing their co-stars and each other. I love that they're trying to keep these kids grounded by encouraging them to take on extracurricular roles within the production, which led to James Phelps (Fred Weasley) becoming an A.D. on set and Evanna Lynch designing the jewellery her character, Luna Lovegood, wears on screen. Or maybe I just love that so many of them seem excited, in a totally non-disingenuous way, by the whole process and not just by their tiny contribution to it. Either way, it's a refreshing change of pace from the sense of entitlement the teen talent of America tends to project.
Extras contains a two-minute teaser featurette for the upcoming diptych Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the 7-minute Tom Felton-hosted soundbite survey of his peers "What's on Your Mind?", a 12-minute informercial/cocktease for the upcoming Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios Orlando, and finally the adult-skewing BBC special "J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life" (49 mins.). Director James Runcie gets Rowling to open up about her daddy issues, hatred of glitz, and even her smoking habits in this laudably frank piece, though like most British journalists he can't conceive of something imagined without autobiographical support and sometimes strains too hard to draw parallels between Rowling's life and seven-book magnum opus. I confess I abandoned the piece once it launched into ...Deathly Hallows spoilers in earnest (Runcie's there for the novel's completion through to its publication) but intend to pick up where I left off after the eighth film comes out. As for "What's on Your Mind?", again, these are bright kids who actually appreciate Shakespeare; something tells me Ashley Tisdale does not.
Rounding out the platter, Additional Footage (7 mins. in toto) consists of eight deleted scenes or scene fragments, the most memorable of which is also sort of hackneyed, as it intercuts a children's choir with Hogwarts falling under the cover of darkness. What they should've done is turn this into a teaser trailer: its cheap effectiveness would not only have not been a sin, it would've been a virtue. The 2.40:1, 1080p video presentation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince proper is very likely irreproachable. I missed the film in theatres and was a little caught off-guard by the aesthetic shift from the crispness of Order of the Phoenix to this more porous look. The image is pretty at least as often as it's uncannily like watching the movie through a saline solution, and it grows tiresome the same way the picture's excessive use of greenscreen does. Still, I spotted nothing that suggested interference at the telecine stage, although black level could bore a tad deeper. While the attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is excellent in terms of transparency and dynamic range, the mix itself continues a downward trend in lacking the envelopment of its predecessor. Originally published: December 10, 2009.