Tuesday, June 14, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE - FILM REVIEW (2009 - Directed by David Yates)

(Film review originally written on July 17, 2009.)

"It comes down to whether or not you trust Dumbledore’s judgement. I do; therefore, I trust Severus."
- Lupin

I never wanted to like the Harry Potter books. I was basically conned into reading them by some well-meaning friends against my will. By “conned” I mean they got me to promise to read the first one, and well … that about did it. I didn’t actually allow myself to admit I liked them until I was halfway through the third book (Prisoner of Azkaban), but then it became clear that J.K. Rowling was really one of those rare good modern day writers. As someone who admittedly loves to read, it’s amazing how hard it is to find contemporary authors who produce quality literature. Sure, I’m prejudiced … but I sometimes feel as if I could count the really talented modern day authors all on the fingers of one hand. Rowling would probably belong in this small select group.

It was almost the same with the movies. The first two movies are alright, nothing special, but there is something that changes during the third one. As Harry and his friends are getting older, they are being forced to grow up. In fact, Harry in particular, has to stop being that wussy little kid that everyone hates and learn how to grow up and become a man sooner than later. The fact that a very powerful dark wizard, who is also rising up to take over the world, happens to be the murderer of Harry’s parents helps, but just because Harry can hate and want revenge does not make him likable. I had no reason to root for or even really care about Harry Potter for quite a while, even though I was enjoying the story. In Prisoner of Azkaban, suddenly you have the character of Sirius Black teaching Harry by his own example that there has to be something more than revenge.

Each story (book and film) has always won me over even more than the last one did. I found myself enjoying the continued character development, enjoying how Rowling simultaneously manages to make each story darker and more serious while keeping up her sense of humor and comedy at the same time, and enjoying watching Harry - the one character I found completely unlikable - slowly bringing himself round into a less nerdy, less wussy, suddenly more selfless fellow that you can actually begin to root for. Every really good story, from a guy’s point of view, needs a badass main character. The Harry Potter series has a number of tough guy supporting characters (Dumbledore? Arthurian Merlin-like badass. Sirius Black? Scrappy badass. Mad-Eye Moody? Piratical badass. Professor Snape? A badass that ONLY Alan Rickman could play.) And this helps. But the main problem with attracting guys to this series is the main character is this nerdy, often crying, whining and complaining little kid. Maybe that doesn’t bother you if you’re a fantasy fiction reading sponge. But it bothered me until … Harry ditches the crying and whining and starts growing up and trying to act like a man. If you’ve got to have a wuss for the main character of your story, then at least make the story into how this wuss is being forced into growing up into a man/badass.

Taking all this into account, The Half-Blood Prince is the best of the six Harry Potter movies so far because it gives most of the main characters the opportunity to finally stretch their acting ability. This is the most acting that a Harry Potter movie has had yet (and this is even without Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh or Emma Thompson around).

Tom Felton is the surprise of the film. Remember the bully/rich kid stereotype at Hogwarts? Well all of a sudden, Felton (as Draco Malfoy) has grown up - and he gives his character a depth that I didn't think he'd actually reach. Malfoy is no longer the school bully. Instead, he's an outcast (with his few other friends as the other outcasts at school that no one else likes). It almost seems like they are destined to be the bad guys. Many of their parents are Lord Voldemort's henchmen. Malfoy's father is now a prisoner at Azkaban. And, whenever Dumbledore makes one of those moralizing speeches, he always seems to give their table a withering look. Malfoy is also suddenly being forced into doing something that (a) he thinks his role in life has now destined for him to do, and (b) in his heart, he suddenly finds he really doesn't want to do - and that scares him. Tom Felton is suddenly old enough to show all of this in his face. When this series is over, I wouldn't be surprised to see Felton find himself as one of the actors from the series that still has somewhere to go.

Helena Bonham Carter - ok, we all knew she was perfect casting for the role as soon as she walked on the screen. But in this film, she chews up every scene she’s in. Giggling and laughing her way through, is it just me, or is she really enjoying this part? I can’t think of anyone besides Tim Burton’s Shakespearean trained wife who could quite make Bellatrix into the same fun-loving evil b**** that she has now become in the films.

Jim Broadbent - again, great casting. Broadbent invests a gentle and vulnerable Professor Slughorn with a … sort of … tortured joviality. He’s kind and selfish at the same time. His ego allows him to “collect” students with a painfully awkward favoritism, while his conscience punishes him for the mistakes he’s made in his past - all with that bright and crooked smile. Broadbent nailed the role of Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Now he’s nailed the role of Professor Slughorn in The Half-Blood Prince.

Daniel Radcliffe - I’m not sure if it was my dislike for Harry’s character that made me dislike Radcliffe, or if my dislike for Radcliffe made me dislike Harry even more. I always thought, even as the main character of the series, that he was the most one-dimensional actor cast in the films - only capable of registering one of three facial expressions - blank stare, complete surprise, or self-satisfied smirk. He did start showing signs of more acting ability in The Order of Phoenix (fighting off Voldemort’s control with the help of Snape and Dumbledore). But, in the Half-Blood Prince, it looks like Radcliffe is finally growing up and stretching out his acting ability, which should only be natural with the older talent he’s surrounded with (Michael Gambon in particular). If Felton’s got the inner turmoil thing down, this is the first film where I’ve found Radcliffe’s inner turmoil act at all believable. He does actually seem to care about his friends this time (and looks to be just barely suppressing his amusement whenever around the interaction between Ron and Hermione). An important emotional scene towards the end with Harry and Dumbledore is made all the more believable thanks to Radcliffe. Let’s hope he keeps this up.

Is this probably the darkest Harry Potter film made yet? Absolutely (And it’s rated PG, which for the life of me I can’t figure out why - wouldn’t let my kids watch it until they reached a particular age - maybe this one just didn’t have enough violence to make PG-13 … but that’s bull.) It manages to be the darkest, and yet perhaps even one of the most humorous films in the series. Different critics have commented on all the romantic relationship elements to the story now - mostly so that they could provide themselves with clever sounding names for their movie reviews. “There was so much boyfriend/girlfriend interaction in this story I’m calling this ‘Harry Potter and the Opera of Soap’ - did you see what I did there? Look how funny I am!” Romance is not the theme of this film, but it is more prevalent - and so what? The characters in the story are getting old enough for romance, and no good story, even a blasting action movie, is really complete without it.

A number of movie critics kept complaining how awkward Harry’s new found love-interest with Ron’s little sister was on the screen - But I didn’t find it so (except when it was supposed to be, and then it was meant to be funny). I personally found this new Harry & Ginny element to the film to be another reason to like Harry. He’s found the right girl. She’s the angel that he needed - not in the sense that she’s perfect, but in the sense that suddenly, Harry has another reason to fight the evil that is within himself. His past crushes didn't give that to him. She does. And Ginny formally begins their romance by encouraging Harry to resist a temptation to give in to a part of himself that most of the rest of his friends wouldn’t blame him for. And she actively does this, but I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler, so I won’t say how. Every guy should find a girl like that - giving him a reason to build up the better parts of his own character like mercy, kindness and the utter refusal to become the same as his enemies.

Bonnie Wright - does precisely what she's supposed to with the small role she's been given. She's needed as a presence. As Harry has slowly been growing up, maturing, and starting to lead his fellow students, who's always been in the background? Ginny. When the Weasley family is attacked by an old enemy and Harry storms out of the house in a irrational & suicidal rage, who's the first person after him? Ginny. And when Harry is devastated by his own temptation to do evil and his ability to really hurt his enemies, who is the first person to tell him that he has no choice but to resist? Ginny. Wright makes her believable, and that's all we ask.

Rupert Grint - speaking of the Weasleys, Grint is also giving us more character development for Ron than we've been given before. Harry's best friend is growing up to become a man too, and so his self-confidence has grown and we get to see it strengthen during the film. Ron is now the school football star (I mean quidditch star or whatever they call it), and he now has a girlfriend (not Hermione) who is unwittingly helping him figure out what he really does want in a girl. But Grint, who has been solid as Ron in the films so far, now invests Ron’s character with equal mixtures of fun and comic relief. Every scene with Grint is now a reason to smile. Emma Watson has been one of the best child actors from the beginning of the series, and now that Grint’s acting talent is strengthening, their interaction together is becoming more meaningful.

By the way, the Quidditch Games are finally back, and as a sports fan, I can appreciate how this wizard version of sports could at least be far more enjoyable than watching, oh say, golf or soccer. If there is one thing the Harry Potter films emphasize when showing clips of Quidditch, it's that this is a VERY violent sport. Blocking, hitting and tackling are all important aspects to the game (which is a good thing) - and this sort of thing becomes a little more rough when you are speeding around at 60 mph. The way this game was looking in The Half-Blood Prince, I could probably have been easily convinced to watch a half-hour or more long clip of the game itself instead of the actual storyline in the movie. (Note: add more sports footage next film, Mr. Yates.) Maybe someday in the future, we can figure out how to really play this game when we're all riding jetpacks or something. (And no, I do not mean anyone should try and running around holding brooms between their legs to pretend your in Harry Potter's world. Stop that. It's dangerous. Bad things can happen to you doing something like that. Go back to your mom's basement and get on with inventing those jetpacks.)

Alan Rickman - Whether Rowling even intended it or not, the role of Professor Snape was made for Alan Rickman. As perfect as some of the casting in the films has been, there has not been a single more dead-on portrayal of a character in Harry Potter than Rickman’s performance as Professor Snape. He’s been stealing every scene he’s been in starting from the very first movie, and not only does this not end with The Half-Blood Prince, it gets better. Anyone who’s read the books knows how important Snape is to this part of the series (an understatement), and for the first time, the story gives Rickman something more to do than just pure comedic sarcasm. On one side or the other (or both), Snape suddenly finds himself having to do things that he doesn’t want to do. And with Rickman, it shows, but only just barely like it ought to. There’s not a film critic out there who can resist giving Rickman credit. For being the most cool, collected, logical, unemotional, and sarcasm filled character in the story, Rickman invests more emotion and feeling into his voice while uttering two little words “Avada Kedavra” than I even imagined while reading the book. Alan Rickman is why we love films based on the good books - rarely are we really given more than we were even able to imagine by ourselves.

I want to discuss further exactly what it is that Snape is doing in this story, but I wanted to keep this review spoiler free. If you've read all the books, you already know. If you've managed to avoid the books and movies so far, and there are a number of you still out there, Alan Rickman is one of the best of many fine reasons that it's acceptable for you to look at what all the fuss is about. This is no longer a series just for little children (it decided to ditch that classification by the 3rd book and film). This was made for your enjoyment, no matter what your age happens to be.

Michael Gambon - gets the final and best recommendation for his acting in the Half-Blood Prince as Professor Dumbledore. I’m not with all the movie critics who are currently blathering about how much better Gambon is as Dumbledore than Richard Harris. Harris rocked at every part he ever played. He was a perfect Dumbledore, and I’m not one to claim that he couldn’t have done what Gambon has now done with the role. But Michael Gambon has also grown into playing the perfect Dumbledore as well. This is what good acting does - the actors make you forget who they are and think only of the character they’ve become.

Dumbledore’s character and his fatherly mentoring relationship with Harry are at their most prominent in this part of the series. While in the past, Dumbledore has often kept himself and his plans secret from Harry, in The Half-Blood Prince, this has finally changed. Dumbledore has made Harry into his right-hand man, and admittedly asks him to do some terribly hard things. THE theme of this film (and it was the theme of the book) is trust in Dumbledore. How much do you trust him and how much can Harry and his friends trust him? That is the ultimate and important question. Gambon makes Dumbledore into the wise, and apparently trustworthy, mentor that Harry is going to desperately need. But Dumbledore isn’t perfect, and he needs Harry as well. The comparisons everyone is making are justified (Merlin to Arthur, Gandalf to Frodo, Obi-Wan to Luke).

Gambon shows us Dumbledore at his best and at his worst. He is both the most powerful good existing wizard who seems to be almost single-handedly holding evil at bay, and he is also inherently vulnerable. The very fact that he is around gives everyone the hope they need against the impossible odds they are facing. He is their rock. He reminds me, as Merlin and Gandalf did, sort of how Old Testament prophets must have been in their day to the people in the nation of Israel. Wise and kind, powerful and vulnerable, seemingly indestructible and yet still searching for answers - Gambon fills his performance with all this and more. He makes you feel safe, and you wish you could know him.

In The Half-Blood Prince, there are, of course, a few incredibly important and shattering scenes at the end - and it’s Michael Gambon who makes all of them work. Exactly how much Dumbledore can really be trusted is the question at the end of this film. Gambon's performance gives exactly what we needed in order to seriously consider this question.

I am happy to say that, for the most part, Christians have stopped making fools of themselves protesting and Bible-thumping against Harry Potter. There are more Christians reading the books in the church than ignorantly declaring how badly we need to protect our children against them. Our favorite “Christian Movie Reviews” people at PluggedIn gave the film a far more positive review than I would have thought they would have given. They, of course, still had to give voice to their doubts on the spiritual content of the film. But doubt can be healthy, especially when trying to be spiritually discerning. Here’s their main points (and the most negative things on the movie they could come up with), written by PluggedIn reviewer, Paul Asay -

"Harry Potter's magic sometimes seems to be more about natural ability than supernatural interference. (Think X-Men.) When Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child, for instance, we learn that Voldemort could simply 'do' things like move objects around with his mind and talk with snakes."

No, really? It’s pretty amazing but he finally got it. Just cross out “sometimes seems to be” and replace it with “IS ALWAYS” and you’ve finally accurately described the use of magic in the story. In Rowling’s fictional fantasy world, magic is a natural power that characters possess that can be used for good or for evil - just like any other power. The use of magic in the Harry Potter stories is NOT calling up demons to do things for you.

"Magic is also tempered with an ethical overlay. There are certain forms that 'good' magicians are forbidden to use, and those who plumb the secrets of 'dark magic' (like Voldemort and his Death Eaters) are summarily expelled, imprisoned or otherwise cast out of 'good' wizarding society."

Precisely. Sounds like a normal society formed by social compact like it's supposed to be. Although it didn’t take everyone else until the sixth story in the series to figure this out. But, to be fair, I haven’t looked to see if Asay has been exposed to the first five.

"But that doesn't, um, magically solve the problem. The darker ideas of potions, incantations, spells, etc., are never far away from these stories. Students, professors and Death Eaters fire their wands like six-shooters and shout out spells like schoolyard taunts. Students sniff love potions, snack on enchanted candy and brew elixirs of death. Professors pull memories from pupils minds with the tips of their wands and turn themselves into purple easy chairs."

There we go again with the assumption that spells, potions, and incantations are dark and therefore pose a problem to the Christian who is reading this fictional story. Did this bother any of us when we were reading about Gandalf in Lord of the Rings ? No? Then why does it bother us in Harry Potter? Is it because it’s little children who are originally learning how to cast spells at school? Gandalf had to learn his wizarding skills somewhere, right?

Asay - "Thus, magic is ever-present and, sometimes, dangerously evil …"

Professor Snape: “Obviously ...”

"But, clearly, this isn't a straight-up good-vs.-evil tale of heroism and conquest. While it's true, as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano reports, 'The spastic search for immortality epitomized by Voldemort is stigmatized,' Harry and Co. routinely use sorcery to defeat sorcerers. And that fact muddies the waters."

If, as Asay admitted at the beginning, it is true that in this fantasy world, like in Lord of the Rings , the use of magic/sorcery is a natural power, and not the calling up of demonic forces, then I don’t understand how the water is muddy. Can the use of power be corrupted, twisted, and used for evil? Yes. In fact, that particular propositional truth is true in real life too. While power, in and of itself, is meant to and ought to be used for good - also both true in real life and in fairy tales - then, we don’t have to question whether the magic being used to stop the bad guy from murdering someone should really be used at all.

"Life, meanwhile, in Harry Potter's world, is a precious, even sacred, commodity. Voldemort, we learn, split his soul into seven pieces, hiding them in various objects — a dark, magical process that required Voldemort to murder multiple times. This is deemed most definitely wrong. According to one professor, 'Killing rips the soul apart.' The suggestion is that this sin, at least, leads to a sort of damnation."

So, in summary: "Well, in the Harry Potter film, I will admit that murder is considered to be wrong. So I guess it’s not all bad."

Yes, I do think it’s funny. But they’ve made progress, and knowing how so many Christians are taught, brought up, and raised right now in the church, I can’t really blame them. I should be happy with them actually, because they have been heading away from the anti-Harry Potter hysteria. You just can’t be exposed to Rowling’s creation for too long without seeing that the values of the story are self-sacrifice, love, friendship, mercy and doing the right thing even when it is very hard to do.

Read Asay's review in it's entirety here - PluggedIn Review of The Half-Blood Prince

The Half-Blood Prince is essentially a story about love and self-sacrifice. Without giving away any spoilers, there are two main characters who both make tremendous sacrifices in this film. Both of these sacrifices are far more hard to do than just getting killed in a battle fighting for the right side. It may even take you reading the last book, or seeing the very last film, to completely understand who is doing what in The Half-Blood Prince , but that is how Rowling intended it. You are going to remember what they did here when the finale comes around.

The moral choices different characters are being forced to make are also becoming much harder, and sometimes seemingly the right choice feels like it is not the right one. Harry has to decide whether or not to do a few things here - and the only way doing them would make any sense at all would be if Dumbledore is completely trustworthy. In fact, the contrast between Harry and Draco Malfoy has never been more distinct. It is clear that Malfoy is ordered to do something at the beginning of the film. And it is something that, in his heart, he knows is wrong - and he suddenly, in spite of himself, cares. Harry is also asked to do a few things that, because of his love for others, he does not want to do. Both characters have to make decisions that can change the rest of their lives. How they deal with this, and how you would deal with it if you were in their shoes, is what makes this story.

Lastly, there has been (and usually always is in popular fantasy stories) much discussion about the conflict between good and evil in the Harry Potter series. Christians like this because the position that good and evil are real is a fundamental part of Orthodox Christianity. But within the discussion about the conflict of good and evil, another through struck me. The Half-Blood Prince doesn’t just set up the conflict (heck, films like Mortal Kombat or Sin City can do that). The Half-Blood Prince makes you value genuine plain ol’ goodness. Goodness is a character trait that is to be treasured, both in ourselves and in our friends. There is something comforting about goodness. The reason we love Dumbledore is because he is good. The reason the Weasley family, and most of the Hogwarts professors, are characters that you care so much about is because they are good. Again, there is something comforting about goodness - it feels safe, like home, like sitting next to a crackling fire during a storm, like sharing a drink with close and beloved friends - it's like a shelter. And being good doesn’t mean that you are inherently good in your nature - no, it means that you actively choose that which is good (and this is also evident in the Harry Potter series).

It sounds so cliched to say this. But if you value goodness, then there are certain things you will not want to do. Or if you do want to do them, you will be disgusted with that part of yourself. In The Half-Blood Prince , Harry is surrounded by good and evil. He is surrounded by characters who are choosing good and who are choosing evil. But he also has to deal with the part of himself that wants to choose evil. And in this story, it’s an internal struggle. One of the most serious scenes of the film (before Ron lightens the mood again) is when Dumbledore addresses the entire school. Dumbledore tells the students about the potential war with evil raging outside their school that he is protecting them from. But all the evil outside started out just like they did - young people making moral choices that shape them into the powerful agents for good or evil they will eventually become. So the most important war with evil has to be raged inside each one of their own hearts. And that is another truth, as C.S. Lewis would say, that this fairy tale can help you discover and understand in ways that perhaps other stories wouldn’t.

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