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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Two-Disc Limited Special Edition)
From its thrilling opening images of inky black Death Eaters swooping down and raining havoc over London to its moving (if abrupt) denouement, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is an intensely involving fantasy that builds upon the series' well-established character relationships and ratchets up the stakes of the wizarding world's conflict with Lord Voldemort. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have all matured, and so has the direction of David Yates along with them. The picture moves swiftly under his sure hand, reflecting a lively engagement with the film's source material and the lovingly-crafted world of Harry Potter.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort has been temporarily defeated and weakened. Now, from a place of seclusion, he directs the Death Eaters, who make rare but lethal forays into the Muggle world in order to cause havoc and weaken Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Meanwhile, in their sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are well into teenagerhood, with awkward romantic slings and arrows flying between Ron and Hermione. The situation grows painful for Hermione when Ron capitulates to the moony advances of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). Of far more consequence is Dumbledore's determination to discover Voldemort's master plan, and he enlists Harry to tease some telling memories from the returned Potions master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). This leads the two on a journey to retrieve Voldemort's Horcruxes - objects in which he has concealed portions of his soul - and to an emotional, jaw-dropping climax.
There are number of things that bring Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince within shouting distance of being the best of the series - and a single significant flaw that prevents it from decisively attaining that distinction.
On the plus side - and there are many pluses - you have the strong, mature performances of the three leads. Daniel Radcliffe is more confident than ever. His body language and affect are more intuitive and naturalistic; although his grin still looks forced and cheerless, he pulls off a few moments of subtle humor with easy aplomb. Emma Watson's troubled Hermione is less strident than usual, although her character is given a backseat in the script. Still, the strength of the subplot between her and Rupert Grint's confused, dumbstruck Ron rides on the shoulders of a well-acted, emotive talk she has with Harry. Some have faulted a perceived over-emphasis on "young love" in the film, but not only does this comprise key development in our characters, it's also a situation with universal resonance - there is no such thing as teen life without romantic complications and misunderstandings. Scenes involving this subplot are handled with energy and commitment, and do not take up more screen time than they merit.
There is no question that this is the most visually beautiful film in the Harry Potter series. The production design by Stuart Craig is imaginative, moody, and flawless and the photography by Bruno Delbonnel is suffused with an elegiac glow that prefigures the film's finale. This is a movie jam-packed with memorable imagery - the black streaks of the Death Eaters, a young Dumbledore setting Tom Riddle's wardrobe on fire, the hilarious slow-motion saves of Cormac McLaggan (Freddie Stroma) at Quidditch tryouts, and the cozy interiors at Hogwarts are among them. I can't think of a more unexpectedly horrific image from a film this year than the moment Katie Bell (Georgina Leonidas) is mysteriously and malevolently levitated, shaken, and suspended, open-mouthed, over the pure white snow outside Hogsmeade. Combine these elements with the inspired score by Nicholas Hooper, and you have the aesthetic pinnacle of the series thus far.
David Yates - whose handling of The Order of the Phoenix was able, but lacked confidence - owns the picture, and the command he displays stems from a deep sense of character dynamics. The humor is more sophisticated, befitting the maturing leads' ages, and the casting of new supporting characters is spot-on. Cave is quite funny as Lavender, and Bonnie Wright comes into her own as a lovely, attentive Ginny Weasley. Among the more familiar faces, Gambon is energetic and focused as Dumbledore, and the typically delicious line readings of Alan Rickman (back as Snape) are accented by a fine sense of ambiguity.
Now I'm coming to the picture's aforementioned "fatal flaw." Not that it keeps The Half-Blood Prince from being one of 2009's best films - but it does harm a film that otherwise shows a consistency of care and attention to detail. What I'm talking about is the rushed, truncated climax and denouement. Devotees of the books will know that there is something missing from the film's final scenes. However, even without the book in mind, viewers will sense a strange abruptness in the last five minutes. The final scene in the astronomy tower (a conversation between Harry, Hermione, and Ron), feels hacked off at the ankles, as if it was originally part of a longer coda. It's an unsatisfying conclusion to a film that is otherwise thoughtfully crafted, which is part of what make the end so jarring.
Other reviews have taken exception to the enhanced 2.35:1 transfer of this DVD, and I count myself among the disappointed. How could Warner Brothers, the studio that used to be known as the standard-bearer for quality transfers, have dropped the ball so resoundingly? Although the film's visuals are themselves peerless, the transfer looks as if it dates from the inception of the DVD format. Pixelation is a real problem, especially in darker scenes, or in scenes with varying light levels. Edge enhancement is also present, which is downright baffling coming from this studio, at this stage in the game. It's not a terrible transfer, but compared to previous Harry Potter DVD releases, it looks shoddy.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is fantastic, thankfully, recreating theater-like dynamics. An expansive, finely-modulated soundstage provides the basis for a thoroughly immersive sonic experience, with surrounds very active during key sequences. Nicholas Hooper's excellent score is well-balanced with dialogue and effects. A memorable mix. A Spanish 5.1 track is optional.
Bonus features on previous Harry Potter releases have been sparse and kid-oriented. The lack of commentary tracks and other more substantive features has been generally disappointing. However, there are a few very interesting bonuses here that start to make up for the missed opportunities of the past. All bonus content is on Disc 2.
Starting us off is First Footage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (1:50), an early combination promo and teaser for the final two films. It's just enough to whet fans' appetites, and is spoiler-free. Close-Up with the Cast of Harry Potter (running an aggregate of 28:33) is a collection of behind-the-scenes bits that contain some illuminating moments. The best extra by far is the in-depth JK Rowling: A Year in the Life (49:43), which chronicles the writing of the series' last book (it does contain spoilers).
One-Minute Drills (6:45) features the cast being quizzed on their characters' pasts. What's On Your Mind? (6:43) is a kid-friendly Q&A with members of the cast. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (11:40) is an extended promo for the forthcoming Universal Orlando attraction.
With its main characters entering a phase of adolescence that alternates maturity and confusion, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is more than just a worthy continuation of a beloved franchise. It's beautifully designed and photographed, directed with energy and wit, and brilliantly scored. Confident, complex performances by the leads and crucial support by the likes of Gambon, Rickman, and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood make it one of the best films of 2009.