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Busy doin’ nothin’: (l-r) Grint, Watson and Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The Magic Is Lost

By Laura Leon

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Directed by David Yates

 

My son has informed me that the seventh, and last, installment of the Harry Potter series will be split into two separate movies, because there is just so much information to be revealed. Watching the sixth in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I couldn’t help but wonder why the filmmakers didn’t stick some of the stuff for No. 7 into this one, as, despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, there isn’t a lot of plot. Indeed, the last 45 minutes seem oddly rushed, as if director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves remembered that they had to lay the groundwork for the long-anticipated finale.

The Half-Blood Prince is sort of like three movies crammed into one messy and disjointed whole. It’s like a well-intentioned pie gone bad: The crust is perfection, but the jammy goodness inside a little too saccharine. There’s Harry’s undercover work, at the behest of Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), to discover what it was that new potions master Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) told young Tom Riddle so many years ago, before said student became “he who shall not be named.” Then there’s the whole burgeoning hormonal thing, erupting in such ways as to make Hogwarts look like a rather genteel Woodstock, and causing great anguish to both Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the increasingly lovely Hermione (Emma Watson), while opening up whole new levels of entertaining fun to the doltish Ron (Rupert Grint). In a word, eww. The final part concerns the tormented Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who has pledged allegiance to Voldemort but spends the entire movie alternating between what looks like ads for a Hugo Boss junior exec line and remakes of Spandeau Ballet videos. Indeed, despite the deliciously nasty presence of adolescent Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane), and a wickedly anarchic Helena Bonham Carter, there’s a marked absence of menace. Even the usually reliable Alan Rickman, as Severus Snape, gets only a few chances to intone, in his deliciously deadpan way, lines like “It must be so nice, Potter, to be the chosen one . . .”

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince allows viewers to measure how the actors and the franchise have fared all these years later; it’s not a movie to sink one’s heart and soul into. Yates’ direction is workmanlike; he’s not as pedestrian as Christopher Columbus (who directed the first two films), but nowhere as fantastical as Alfonso Cuarón, whose Prisoner of Azkaban snatched the series from a Disney-like worldview and plunked it straight into the messy, murky environs of death, obsession and loss.

The Potter series represents a chance to see great Brit thespians at work, but, as with Rickman, most aren’t utilized nearly enough. On the plus side, Broadbent is a magnificent addition, even if his character is more of a plot device than an integrated presence in Harry’s world. Both Radcliffe and Watson have grown immensely in terms of their delivery, but given the fact that they began as very green youngsters, that might not be saying much. However, both demonstrate good comic timing and a bit of nuance, which goes a long way in underlining the great friendship, and the budding maturity, of their characters, and which also comes in handy during the large early chunk of the movie devoted primarily to the pursuit of all things hormonal. There’s a gravity to their performances which anchors their characters. With them, and with Gambon channeling his inner Charlton Heston, one gets the sense that the threat posed by Voldemort is very real, and they’re playing for keeps.

Songs of Freedom

Afghan Star

Directed by Havana Marking

The documentary Afghan Star is in equal measures affirming and alarming. As it follows a group of contestants on an Afghani television program similar to American Idol, it offers poignant reminders of some of the fundamental commonalities of human experience: the instinct toward expression and joy, the desire for appreciation and approval, the deep attachment to home (however defined and however troubled). It also, however, reveals the obverse side of those same qualities and activities: the violent backlash at expression deemed subversive, the foolishness of those desperate for attention, the hateful zealotry of exclusive identity groups.

Though the documentary starts early in the auditioning process, when literally thousands of contestants are vying for spots, it focuses ultimately on three: Rafi, a 19-year-old pretty boy; Hammeed, a classically trained singer and member of one of Afghanistan’s most persecuted ethnic minorities; and Setara, a 21-year-old woman with a daring, and dangerous, disregard for the conservatism of much of the Afghani population—not to mention the Taliban.

As much as Afghan Star is the story of these three contestants, it is also the story of the country’s remarkably tumultuous history over the last 30 years. Interviewees recall, and footage illustrates, an Afghanistan likely unfamiliar to most Westerners: a liberal and highly cultured country. (Assuming, that is, that you believe synth-adorned new-wave music and exposed ankles evidence of culture.)

It is sobering to see such images juxtaposed with the footage of shelled and bullet-scarred buildings. It is unsettling to think how such a once-free society can evolve—via religious extremism—into one in which an adult would say with stone-faced conviction that a loose woman should be put to death. It is absolutely terrifying to think that in our lifetimes, not so far away, the loose woman in question was deemed such for dancing and exposing her hair.

As a film, Afghan Star is a little rough around the edges. This is to be expected in a documentary made in, no doubt, less than perfect circumstances. Even so, the pacing of the early portion is clumsy and the reliance on screen text to move the story forward feels strained. It’s a minor quibble, though, and the movie quickly picks up as the competition becomes more intense and the field of contestants narrower.

Though pop-culture cynics might find something overblown in the rhetoric of Afghanis equating a vote for a favorite singer with “real” democracy, or something sadly naive about the belief that this entertainment is evidence of a trans-ethnic brotherhood emerging in Afghanistan, it is hard not to be affected by their hope.

Afghan Star is a touching, dire reminder of the fragility of freedoms we often take for granted.

—John Rodat


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