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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

(2009) *** 1/2 Pg
154 min. Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: David Yates. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Helena Bonham Carter.

/content/films/3485/1.jpgIf you don’t know a Horcrux from a hole in the wall, you’re probably not part of the 40-million-strong target audience for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the sixth Harry Potter film won’t be your cup of tea.
Based on the penultimate novel of J.K. Rowling’s seven-novel series, director David Yates’ second Potter film makes Rowling’s characters and environs yet richer and deeper with (coming of) age. Like one of the potions practiced by the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, much of the latest outing is set to simmer (after the fatal events of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), but it eventually grows to a boil. Anticipating a final showdown with powerful wizard Lord Voldemort, Hogwarts’ benign headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) focuses on preparing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) for the task of defeating evil. "Once again," the professor intones, "I must ask too much of you, Harry."

The key to defeating Voldemort is a memory locked away and closely guarded in the mind of his former Potions Professor Horace Slughorn (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent), who reluctantly agrees to return to his post at Hogwarts. As Harry plies for Slughorn’s secret, the school is thick with romantic entanglements complicated by unrequited love. Harry’s best friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are meant for each other, though they haven’t yet acknowledged what’s apparent to Harry; meanwhile, Harry pines for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Can PG-rated “snogging” be far behind?

Taken on its own, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might inspire a shrug. The romance isn’t much more sophisticated those found in High School Musical, and the principal bad guy appears only in flashback (trivia alert: at age eleven, Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort is played by the actor’s nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin). Thankfully, this film isn’t meant to be taken on its own, but as a satisfying chapter in a grander scheme built up in five previous films and to pay off in the two-part cinematic adaptation of Rowling’s final entry, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 in fall 2010; Part 2 in summer 2011). It's all about the characters about whom we've grown to care, from the core triumverate down to Rowling's cleverly conceived weird girl Luna Lovegood (the adorable Evanna Lynch). Aside from the necessary midstream replacement of Richard Harris' Dumbledore, the cast has remained fan-pleasingly intact, with even some of the extras familiar from the 2001 original.

/content/films/3485/2.jpgWarner Brothers gambled and won with the casting of the young heroes (and ever more prominent villain Draco Malfoy, played with intensity by Tom Felton), who have blossomed into polished performers still believable as heart-sick teens. Ample support comes from a “who’s who” of British acting talent, crack cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), Stuart Craig’s ornate production design, and literally top-flight special effects laced into nearly every shot in the film (the film's kinetic opening shot is particularly a stunner).

As always, Alan Rickman (as the ambiguous Severus Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (as the frightful "Death Eater" Bellatrix Lestrange) shine. The film also incorporates brief appearances by Dame Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters, and Warwick Davis, among others. Gambon is a strong anchor as Harry's emotional foundation, but it's the finely tuned Broadbent ("Merlin's beard!") who steals the show, ever dropping his right eyebrow in ways that speak comedic and dramatic volumes about his character. In one of several examples of dark subtext, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves ably and subtly use Slughorn to intimate a metaphor for mentor-student sexual abuse: Harry is warned Slughorn will attempt to "collect" him, and flashbacks depict teacher and student succumbing to irresponsible (if role reversed) behavior that "will be our secret."

More prominent is the subtext that Harry must supplant his father figure (Dumbledore), step up, and become his own man (albeit ongoingly with a little help from his friends). In focusing on this story beat and the personal relationships of the hormonal teenagers, the filmmakers relocate to the backburner conventional action sequences and displays of wondrous magic (the plot still includes a high-flying, broomstick-bound Quidditch match and a vial of "liquid luck"). The tactic doesn't make the film any less suspenseful or entertaining; though it can drag a bit in the later, broodier moments of its 154-minute run time, a surprising amount of comedy keeps the early going breezy.

While it’s true that a Muggle walking off the street and into the multiplex would struggle a bit with the series’ busy mythology, the basics remain elemental: a world of magic and mystery, a battle of good and evil, and the social struggles of school-age lads and lasses. Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but in this franchise--where you’re likely to spot a hobgoblin or two--the consistency isn’t foolish but miraculous. How many film series can claim the standard of quality (and success) Harry Potter has maintained over eight years and six films?

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/14/2011

Distributor: Warner Home Video

It's no surprise that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince looks and sounds remarkable on Blu-ray, now in its Ultimate Edition; this is the stuff to show off what your system can do. Brilliant detail, spot-on color rendering, and fine textures highlight the "magical" presentation. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix is even better, creating the kind of immersive soundscape that is a home theater nut's dream. Balance and clarity are top-notch, with powerful effects roaring to life on cue. Adding value is the sturdy Ultimate Edition box, enclosing the hardcover book Creating the World of Harry Potter: Magical Effects, lenticular slipcover, two more collector cards, and access to a Digital Copy of the film.

Extras are splendid, starting with WB's Maximum Movie Mode (HD), here with picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes and interview footage, scene comparisons (effects breakdowns), photo galleries, and fourteen Focus Points, which are also available from a special menu. Participants include Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, director David Yates, producer David Heyman, second unit director Stephen Woolfenden, aerial coordinator Marc Woolf, London policeman Tim Dixon, producer David Barron, production designer Stuart Craig, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Cave, special effects supervisor John Richardson, Bonnie Wright, make-up & creature effects designer Nick Dudman, visual effects supervisor Tim Burke, visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, associate visual effects supervisor Robert Weaver, and visual effects art director Aaron McBride. The Focus Points are "The Milennium Bridge" (3:27, HD), "Shooting on Location" (1:57, HD), "Professor Slughorn" (2:48, HD), "Building Relationships" (2:04, HD), "Director David Yates Returns" (2:45, HD), "Wool's Orphanage" (2:49, HD), "Ron and Lavender's Kiss" (2:07, HD), "The Burrow" (2:56, HD), "Harry and Ginny's Kiss" (2:04, HD), "Aragog Returns" (2:59, HD), "Creating the Cave" (2:29, HD), "Designing the Virtual Cave Environment" (3:41, HD), "The Inferi" (3:26, HD), and "The Underwater Sequence" (2:06, HD).

Disc two houses several more nifty bonuses, starting with the debut of Creating the World of Harry Potter Part 6: Magical Effects (1:04:09, HD), a deluxe look at the special effects wizardry of the series, both in computers generating imagery and on the set, through the use of practical effects.

"Close-Up with the Cast of Harry Potter" (28:34 with "Play All" option, HD) comprises "Editing with Daniel Radcliffe," "Special Effects with Matthew Lewis, Oliver Phelps, and Tom Felton," "Owl Training with Jessie Cave," "Stunt Training with Rupert Grint," "Costume Designs with Evanna Lynch," "Art with Bonnie Wright," "Behind the Camera with James Phelps" and "Makeup with Emma Watson." Also on hand are Alfie Enoch, editor Mark Day, Richardson, special effects senior technician Matt Harlow, owl trainer Guillaume Grange, stunt performer Nick Daines, costume designer Jany Temime, graphic designer Eduardo Lima, and makeup designer Amanda Knight.

The new-to-Blu-ray 2009 British TV special "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Behind the Magic" (46:50, SD) is a standard promo-style making-of.

"One-Minute Drills" (6:45, HD) finds James and Oliver Phelps, Wright, Radcliffe, Grint, Felton, and Watson attempting to sum up each's character history to date in one minute flat.

"J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life" (49:46, HD) is a surprisingly in-depth documentary with the woman who started it all, the author of the Harry Potter books, as she puts the series to bed with a pull-out-the-stops personal appearance tour.

In "What's On Your Mind?" (6:43, HD), Felton quizzes his castmates Radcliffe, Grint, Cave, Lewis, Watson, Oliver and James Phelps, Jamie Waylett, Devon Murray, Wright, Anna Shaffer and Josh Herdman about some of their personal likes and dislikes and experiences.

"The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" (11:40, HD) looks at the amazing new attraction at the Universal Orlando Resort, where the world of Harry Potter is being recreated to scale. Interviewees include Radcliffe, Watson, Universal Creative Vice President Thierry Coup, Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury, show producer Paul Daurio, Heyman, Craig, supervising art director Alan Gilmore, Barron, Robbie Coltrane, Universal Parks and Resorts executive chef Steve Jayson, Michael Gambon, Grint, Tom Felton, Oliver Phelps & James Phelps, and Matthew Lewis.

Eight "Deleted Scenes" (6:51, HD) comprise "Harry and Hermione Walk Through the Halls of Hogwarts" (:29), "Harry and Hermione Discuss the Marauder's Map" (1:02), "Harry, Ron and Hermione Discuss the Vanishing Cabinet" (1:07), "Harry and Dumbledore Arrive at the Cave Entrance" (:41), "Harry and Dumbledore Leave Cave" (:22), "Clouds Gather Over Hogwarts as Flitwick Conducts Choir" (1:42), "Harry Joins Ron, Hermione and Ginny in the Common Room" (:43), and "Harry and Hermione Discuss Ron at Astronomy Tower" (:44).

Promotional "Interstitials" (4:42, HD) include "The Story" (:57), "Love is in the Air" (:57), "Meet Professor Slughorn" (:57), "The Story of Tom Riddle" (:57), and "Comedy" (:57).

Last up are four "Trailers" (8:28, HD): "Teaser Trailer" (1:41), "Theatrical Trailer #3A" (1:53), "Theatrical Trailer #4B" (2:27), and "Theatrical Trailer #5" (2:27).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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