Thursday, July 16, 2009

'Potter' series still full 'blood'ed entertainment

The time has come for another “Harry Potter” film, which is something I say with great joy versus a heavy sigh. “Harry Potter” is not only the most financially successful franchise of all time — it is one of the most consistently entertaining.

The “Harry Potter” series may have completed its seven book arc two year ago, but the film series has a few more laps to go. With the release of “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” the count is at six with book seven being split into two films.

By the time of the final film’s release in 2011, it’ll be a full decade of J.K. Rowling’s beloved characters on the silver screen. We’ve seen the young wizards Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up, and the actors that bring them to life, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emily Watson, grow into fine actors.

This installment focuses on Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) recruiting Harry to extract a memory regarding Voldemort from the eccentric returning potions professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). This memory is the key to the undoing of the all powerful evil that is Voldemort.

The film also involves an assassination plot of a key central character. That someone dies in this film is no surprise to the followers of the book series, but you’ll see no spoilers here for those who haven’t read the book.

Speaking of those who haven’t read the book, I fall into that group. This allows me to look at the films on their own merits. The key to their success has been a willingness to explore the dark corners of the story and to not simply make a dumbed-down version for the masses.

I can’t say what has or hasn’t been changed, but obviously there has been condensing. It has been my understanding that, though details have been changed or removed, the series has largely been faithful to its source material.

The films themselves have been getting better the more willing the filmmakers have been to create their own vision instead of simply trying to mimic line for line what is on the page.

After going through several directors ranging from the workman-like Chris Columbus to the visionary Alfonso Cuarón, the series has settled on David Yates to finish the job. He directed the previous installment and is directing the concluding films.

As with “Order of the Phoenix,” Yates brings a foreboding tone to the proceedings.
This time he creates sequences that are tense and suspenseful. Even with a two and a half hour running time, the film moves briskly, yet takes enough to time to give room for the characters to breathe.

At one point Harry remarks he never noticed how beautiful The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was. The same holds true of the films set there. It is easy to become immersed in this world and take for granted the painstaking craft that went into creating the look and feel of the film.

“Half Blood Prince” in particular is beautiful to behold with gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (“Amélie”) that uses defused earthy tones crucial in creating the film’s uncertain atmosphere.

The proceedings aren’t all gloom and doom; there’s plenty of low-key comedy as the three young leads deal with adolescent crushes. Grint, who was always reliable comic relief and has increasingly developed into a fine comic actor, is particularly good in these scenes.

There’s also the first sparks of romance between Harry and Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). These scenes are handled delicately and Yates proves to be a director who is assured in both the small moments and the more elaborate set pieces such as the stunning opening destruction of London’s Millennium Bridge.

It is impossible to name check the entire cast of veteran British actors. Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape as always remains a standout. Rickman has brought an ambiguous sinister edge to the role that becomes even murkier as his true intentions seem to finally come to the fore.

Gambon, who had the unfortunate task of taking over the role of Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris, gives his best performance the fourth time out — perhaps because Dumbledore has a more active role in the plot this time around. He imbues the performance with humor, wisdom and heart.

For those who haven’t followed either the books or the films, entering the series now would probably be a confusing endeavor. That being said, this is such a visually rich and well told installment that maybe even the uninitiated should give it a try.

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