New Releases for the Week of July 15, 2011


 

July 15, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Jason Isaacs, David Thewlis, every actor in Britain. Directed by David Yates

Do you really need a synopsis for this one? Honestly, seven films in the can and you have to think about it? You know you’re going to see it and if you’re not, it’s not like a plot summary is going to change your mind. Bad wizards beat the crap out of good wizards leading to one whale of a final battle. Two men enter, one man leaves. You’ve read the book – now see the movie!

See the trailer, promos, featurettes, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images)

A Better Life

(Summit) Demian Bechir, Jose Julian, Delores Heredia, Carlos Linares. An illegal alien in Los Angeles works his cabeza off for a better life for him and his teenage son but must contend with the ever-present threat of deportation, gang violence and a stolen truck. Along the way the father and son reconnect and discover that making it in the land of plenty takes plenty of strength.

See the trailers, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, language and brief drug use)

Winnie the Pooh

(Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, Tom Kenny, John Cleese. A.A. Milne’s beloved children’s storybook characters return to the big screen in this hand-drawn animated feature in which the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood attempt to procure for Eeyore a new tail. The trailer had me reaching for a bowl of Cream of Wheat and a glass of chocolate milk.

See the trailer, featurettes, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Love Actually


Love Actually

Is it love actually or lust actually?

(2003) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Rodrigo Santoro, Gregor Fisher, Thomas Sangster, Lucia Moniz, Andrew Lincoln. Directed by Richard Curtis

Our world can be a hard, cruel place. We are buffeted on all sides by cruelty and meanness. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us sane in this world is the love of another, but that seems to be in short supply in these hard times. However, if you look carefully enough, you may find that love, actually, is all around us.

Billy Mack (Nighy), a fading rock and roll legend, tries to kickstart a comeback with a Christmas version of one of his hits as shepherded by his long-suffering manager Joe (Fisher). The new Prime Minister (Grant) falls for Natalie (McCutcheon), a plucky member of his staff. Jamie Bennett (Firth), a writer, mends his broken heart in France while cared for by a Portugese housekeeper named Aurelia (Moniz); the two begin to develop a deep fondness for one another despite the language barrier.

Daniel (Neeson) grieves for his late wife while his son Sam (Sangster) pines for a schoolmate. His friend Karen (Thompson) – who is also the Prime Minister’s sister – prepares for a school Christmas pageant. Her husband Henry (Rickman) runs a graphic design business, where Sarah (Linney), an American employee, yearns for Karl (Santoro), an enigmatic designer while Henry struggles with infidelity with an aggressive receptionist.

Colin (Marshall), an upbeat courier, gives up on finding the right woman in the UK and prepares to immigrate to the United States. Newlyweds Peter (Ejiofor) and Juliet (Knightley) have their lives complicated somewhat by Peter’s best friend John (Lincoln) who has a deep crush on Juliet, one that he would never act on. All of these stories intertwine an  intersect in London at Christmastime, perhaps one of the most magical places on Earth.

First of all, let me get this out of the way – this is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an astonishing piece of work, considering this is Richard Curtis’ first feature as a director (he had previously written a number of terrific movies, including Four Weddings and a Funeral). Here, he skillfully interweaves the stories among one another, linking some together directly and others indirectly, creating a viable whole giving none of them short shrift; it’s quite the tightrope walking act, and it is so rarely done well that when it is it must be applauded just on that basis alone.

I wrestled with using this as part of my Holly and the Quill series of Christmas movies, but eventually decided this isn’t a Christmas movie so much as a movie set at Christmastime. It is about love and could easily be set any time of the year. However I admit the Christmas setting adds to the overall warmth of the film.

One of the things I love about this movie is that not all of the relationships work out in the end. Like love itself, things can be pretty tangled and end up unfinished. Of course, some of the relationships also pan out. Will those relationships succeed? Who knows! All that I know is that love is wonderful while you’re in it, especially when you’re in it with the right person long term. All of these relationships – showing love at various stages of the relationship – have a sense of realism to them. The movie is well cast and all the couples have legitimate chemistry and an organic feel to their relationships.

This is a movie I watch often, usually with Da Queen and we always enjoy it, even after many viewings. We own the soundtrack, which is one of the better ones in any movie in the last ten years. In fact, this is one of my favorite movies of all time – but I’ve said that already. If you’re looking for a movie to snuggle up with your honey to this Valentine’s Day, this should be at the top of your list.

WHY RENT THIS: All of the vignettes work; there aren’t any weak moments or characters. The movie is sexy and funny and nearly everyone gets enough screen time to sufficiently develop their characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe it’s too English for you or you just don’t like romantic comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexuality, a little bit of nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos here, as well as a featurette in which Curtis discusses the movie’s music.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $246.9M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sanctum

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry and Hermione share a rare tender moment in a dark and dismal place.

(2010) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman . Directed by David Yates

As someone who’s been with the Harry Potter series from the beginning, I had always thought it a young adult fantasy series but I was wrong. This has always been a series for adults; we just didn’t know it at the time.

After the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are on the run. No longer is Hogwarts a safe place – in fact, it only puts in a cursory appearance in the movie. Instead, the three are on the run, chased by Deatheaters who are looking for Harry specifically.

Lord Voldemort (Fiennes) and his cohorts, including Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs), his son Draco (Felton) and cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Carter) have taken over the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts itself and have launched a campaign to stamp out Muggles, using propaganda and fear. The overall impression is of a totalitarian Nazi-like state with Voldemort a Hitler-like figure at the top.

Harry is seeking the horcruxes, special items in which Voldemort has placed parts of his soul. Harry has found several of them but there still remain several to go. The stress and weariness are getting to Ron, who notices that Harry and Hermione are getting close. Into this mix comes the Deathly Hallows, but what exactly are they and how are they the key to victory over Voldemort?

This is movie is dark, dark, dark. If Half-Blood Prince was dark, this is pitch-black. This is serial killer-dark. This is your mom is dead-dark. You get the picture. In fact, the mood is so unrelenting in its grimness that you actually feel it weighing on your soul as you exit the theater.

I have tried to avoid reading the books before I see the movies so I can’t really say how closely this follows the book, which the studio has ultimately decided to split into two movies ostensibly at author J.K. Rowling’s request but, I suspect, also as a way of wringing out twice the revenue from the same book which will be the final installment in the series. Along the way it has become the most successful film series of all time on a per-film basis (the Bond series has brought more money in overall but has had 22 films to do it in) and more or less a license for Warner Brothers to print money. It’s not hard to see why they’re disappointed that the cash cow is coming to a close.

Part of my issue with the movie is that there is just so much information being crammed into it, and so many characters – nearly everyone from the first six books who haven’t died either in the series or in real life is here. It’s very difficult to keep everybody straight and by the time the two and a half hour movie comes to a close, you feel a very real sense of overload.

And yet there is much going for the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become fine actors and have essentially grown up with their roles. Harry is showing the heroism that his character has always threatened to be, while Hermione is not only a charming and beautiful young woman but brilliant and resourceful as well, every bit Harry’s equal. Ron is the most human of the three, filled with doubts and flaws, but yet in his own way more courageous than either of them. The three make a formidable team, three terrific friends who are stronger together than they are separately.

The special effects are jaw-dropping at times, particularly an early broomstick and motorcycle sidecar battle, as well as a wonderful animation that introduces the Deathly Hallows into the film (the animator Ben Hibon has recently been rewarded with a feature film of his own). While a dark and terrifying place, the wizarding world is no less dazzling than it has been all along.

One gets the impression that the second film of the two Deathly Hallows movies will be much better in the sense that the resolution that is approaching like a bullet train is going to be something special. Much of that has to do with Rowling, who may sometimes not get her due simply because the books appeal to children. She is simply put one of the best writers of our age, regardless of genre or audience.

This is still a movie worth seeing – it is in many ways the weakest movie in the series simply because it feels so incomplete and yet it is the equal of all of them, but that is a function of the split. It is a movie of putting aside childish things and stepping into a frightening world. It is a movie of accepting responsibility and standing up for what is good and what is right. It is a movie that while on the surface may seem to be about running away and hiding is in reality about acting in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible penalties. Bad things happen to good people in this series – not everyone comes out of the movie alive and many come out badly injured at least. It is a movie about conquering fear, and what better lesson can we give to young people than that?

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this is marvelous to look at and all the threads of the first six movies are beginning to draw together into a recognizable tapestry.

REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark – this is not your older brother’s Harry Potter. There is a good deal of information crammed into this movie which will probably all be necessary for the second but it sure does slow the pacing down quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: This is dark, dark, dark – the wee ones are going to be plenty scared by the violence, both on-screen and implied. The evil of Voldemort and his Deatheaters becomes much more realized and I would have a serious talk with any younger kid before seeing it to make sure they understand it’s just a movie. If they are prone to nightmares or particularly sensitive, I’d really think twice about taking my kids to see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After escaping the attack at the wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron end up in a London diner, where one of the posters on the wall is for the West End production of “Equus” which star Daniel Radcliffe starred in.

HOME OR THEATER: You will see this on the big screen, if you haven’t already.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last Legion

New Releases for the Week of November 19, 2010


November 19, 2010

Hagrid and Harry pose as Hell's Angels, thinking they'll be inconspicuous.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy, Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, Maggie Smith. Directed by David Yates

Why bother? You‘re gonna see it. You know you’re gonna see it. It wouldn’t matter if this was about Harry eating his own weight in Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. You’d still go see it. The fact that this is the first of two parts of the last Harry Potter adventure only means you’re really eager to see it. So don’t bother reading this. It’s a waste of time. Just…go see it.

See the trailer, promos, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for some scenes of intense action violence and frightening images)

Fair Game

(Summit) Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Noah Emmerich, Nicholas Sadler. This is based on the true story of Valerie Plame, the CIA Operative who was “outed” by high ranking Bush Administration officials to the New York Times and Washington columnist Robert Novak as a field operative. Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, contend that this was done as a reprisal for Wilson’s public criticism of the invasion of Iraq over phantom weapons of mass destruction.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Guzaarish

(UTV) Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Ash Chandler. When a stage magician is paralyzed in a tragic accident, he seems to accept his lot, changing his profession to a radio DJ whose popular radio show spreads love and magic throughout the land. He is aided by his devoted nurse and romantic partner. However, fourteen years after his injury, he shocks everyone by petitioning the Indian courts to allow him to die, putting his relationship with his nurse in turmoil.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Next Three Days

(Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy. When his wife is arrested for murder, John Brennan is shocked but confident that she is innocent and will be acquitted. When she’s convicted of the gruesome crime, he is angered. When he realizes that she will never be able to serve the full length of her sentence, he becomes desperate and determines to break her out of prison, no matter the odds.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, drug material, language, some sexuality and thematic elements)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The 18th century version of Dirty Dancing.

(DreamWorks) Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt (voice), Sam Douglas, Karoline Herfurth. Directed by Tom Tykwer

Obsessions are destructive. They can lead us into temptation, directly into harm’s way, into the path of a freaking school bus. Obsession is the madness that whispers to us in the night, promising all manner of pleasures but in the end delivering only sackcloth and ashes.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born to a fishwife, a woman who paused only a moment to allow her birthing to slip out of her into the pile of fishguts and offal that lay below her stand at the fish market in 18th century Paris before resuming her chopping of cod.

Through a rather charmless set of circumstances the young Grenouille winds up an orphan, but he’s not just any kid. He has a marvelously developed sense of smell, able to distinguish the most subtle of fragrances from miles away. Somewhat ironically, he also has no scent of his own, which further creates the impressions among those who live with him that there’s something sinister about young Grenouille…and they’re right.

He goes to work for a tanner and finds himself luxuriating in the rich smells, the stink that is Paris. Grenouille yearns to have a scent of his own, one that will fill people with such longing and desire that they won’t be able to help themselves; they must love him. One evening while delivering some hides in the city, he encounters a young girl selling plums (Herfurth) and becomes intoxicated by her smell. He is so entranced that he can’t bear to be away from her. She, quite understandably, thinks he’s a lunatic stalker and is terrified of him. He tries to muffle her screams and winds up smothering the life from her. As she dies, her scent dissipates driving Grenouille nearly mad with frustration. However, he manages to slip away before being discovered.

Some nights later he delivers some hides to a perfumer named Baldini (Hoffman) who’s seen better days. To Hoffman’s astonishment, Grenouille turns out to have the best nose of any man he’s ever met; he merely lacks the education to become a great perfumer on his own. Hoffman arranges to buy Grenouille’s contract from the tanner and Grenouille becomes his apprentice.

Baldini teaches him most of what Grenouille needs to know to distill perfume on his own; in return, Grenouille gives Baldini enough perfume formulas to make Baldini rich for many years to come (although it doesn’t turn out that way). Grenouille then makes his way to Grasse, the center of the French perfume industry. There he becomes enamored of a young girl (Hurd-Wood) whose father (Rickman) suspects that there is a serial killer in their midst.

That’s because there is; Grenouille has embarked on a twisted, vicious plan to distill the essence of beauty and for that he will need beautiful young girls who unfortunately must die in order for their essence to be properly extracted. He needs 13 of them and the young girl will be his 13th; can he be stopped before he finishes his plan?

This is based on the excellent Patrick Susskind novel “Parfum” which the novelist thought unfilmable; even though producer Bernd Eichenger is a personal friend of the author, he was reluctant to give the film rights to anybody, even his friend. However, German wunderkind director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) is just the man to undertake such a venture.

What we get is something of a mixed bag. This is in many ways an unpleasant film to watch; Tykwer not only captures the squalor of 18th century Paris, he wallows in it as he does in the twisted desires of the protagonist. To a very real degree I felt grimy after watching this to the point where I felt an urge to take a shower.

However, that does not a bad film make. Whishaw, who is appealing in Bright Star, has a very unlovable character here, and yet he makes him compelling. He gets fine support from Rickman and Hoffman, whose crucial but relatively small role lights up the movie for the short time he’s in it.

Tykwer does a yeoman job in re-creating the 18th century France, both the rural Grasse and the urban Paris. He also carries out the near impossible – making a movie that is very largely about fragrance, a sense that cinema doesn’t utilize, and making it work. It can be hard to watch in places, particularly some of the later scenes, but for the most part this is a unique, compelling work that is different enough to be worth your checking out.

WHY RENT THIS: The film captures the squalor of 18th century France very nicely. It is certainly different than most of the thrillers you’ll see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very, very twisted and difficult to watch in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, mayhem, gore, a whole lot of nudity and some truly shocking and revolting images. Parents, keep your kids away from this DVD!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Paris, the movie was filmed in Barcelona which the producers felt looked much more like 18th century France.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Despicable Me

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter: Ultimate Emo Boy!

(Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis. Directed by David Yates

Being a teenager is hard enough without additional burdens. There’s the rampaging flood of hormones that makes a life-or-death situation of any emotional trauma. There’s the constant war between childish comforts and the call of growing up. Throw on top of that the responsibility of being The Chosen One and well, it sucks to be Harry Potter.

After the fallout of the events of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry (Radcliffe) has become a bit of a celebrity. The tabloids have gone so far as to wonder out loud if he isn’t The Chosen One, the wizard meant to end the threat of Valdemort (Fiennes) once and for all. For Valdemort’s part, his Deatheaters are no longer acting covertly but openly causing damage in both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds.

Dumbledore (Gambon) is increasingly spending time with Harry, preparing him for the battle to come. He takes young Harry on a mission to find Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), a bon vivant and former Potions teacher at Hogwarts. The idea is not just to offer him a job, but to bring him close to Dumbledore. Slughorn has a memory of young Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane) that may prove to be crucial in defeating the Dark Lord once and for all, but it is a memory that Slughorn is reluctant to pass on; you see, the contents of that memory may also ruin Slughorn forever.

In the meantime, Harry and his friends Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are struggling with the adolescent hormones big time. Ron is the target of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), while Hermione has her eye on Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) and Harry himself has come under the scrutiny of Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Things can be very tangled up at that age.

In the meantime, the Dark Lord has an infiltrator at Hogwarts – Draco Malfoy (Felton). He is being protected by Professor Snape (Rickman), the former Deatheater who has been pressed into service by Draco’s mother Narcissa (Helen McCrory) and the evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Bonham Carter). What Malfoy’s mission is – and what he is doing with the cabinet in the Room of Requirement – is also central to Harry’s fate and the fate of the Wizarding world.

This is a much darker Potter than any of the other films in the franchise, and you definitely get a sense that the confrontation that has been building since the first movie is almost upon us. While the Wizarding world intrudes on our own world much more in this movie (London’s famed Millennium Bridge is destroyed in a fit of spite by the Deatheaters), the movie is Hogwarts-centric. However, you get less of a sense of it as a school as much as you do of the place of it. Harry is not attending classes so much as brooding in the hallways. We see much more of the social interactions between the students than we do instructions in the art of magic, and that’s a good thing.

Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have turned out to be solid, first-class actors who hold their own with world class talents like Rickman and Smith. Wright has also turned out nicely, making the romance between Ginny and Harry one of the sweetest things in the movie and nicely authentic. Watching Ron and Hermione turn towards each other is much more like watching your sister kiss your brother.

The effects are magnificent and the story is compelling. So why didn’t I like this movie more? Much of the middle part of the movie seems directly aimed at pleasing the legions of Potter obsessives who demand that the books be faithfully followed to a literal “T”. Characters literally make cameo appearances – Wormtail (Spall) appears merely to open a door without saying a word, then disappear from the film entirely. That kind of thing proves to be distracting.

The craft that went into the making of this movie is extraordinary. Kudos must go to the special effects and art direction crews; this is a world that is well-lived in and fleshed out and much of the credit must go to J.K. Rowling. She has created a world so detailed in her books that the movie crews have a great template to work with. The sequence in the underground cavern in which Dumbledore displays some of the powerful magic he is capable of is extremely well-done, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff, spectacle at its finest.

This is a solidly made movie that while not up to the standards of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, is still certainly worth seeing. I suspect that you will probably like it more than I did – for some reason, it didn’t draw me in the way other Potter movies have. Perhaps it is the dark, foreboding tone of the movie that makes the Wizarding world much less attractive to be in, unlike the first movies when it was a delightful place.

If there is light, then there must also be its absence as well, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince peers into that aspect firmly. This is not meant to be a movie for small children, but a movie for putting aside childish things. Harry Potter is growing up, and perhaps I’m not ready for that but as with all children, they grow up whether we want them to or not.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular special effects sequences and art direction make this a feast for the eyes. Well-acted and the romance between Ginny and Harry is extremely sweet and believable. Michael Gambon does some of his finest work of his career.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone is exceedingly dark and foreboding. There is a lot of unnecessary business that while pandering to the Potter extremists, proves to be distracting to the rest of us.

FAMILY VALUES: There are many frightening images and incidents that may be too intense for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.K. Rowling makes a cameo appearance as the subject on the cover of a gardening magazine that Dumbledore picks up in Slughorn’s flat.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The documentary J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (which aired on U.S. cable) depicts the last year of the writing of the final book in the Harry Potter series during which the author revisits her past; there is also a series of “One Minute Drills” in which the cast are given sixty seconds to describe their character’s history, personality and other personal details  before time runs out. Finally, there is a sneak peak of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park opening in the Spring of 2010 in Orlando, Florida.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Armored